SHERIDAN — According to David Orr, environmental educator and professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, “…young people on average can recognize over 1,000 corporate logos but only a handful of plants and animals native to their places.” This sobering statistic is likely similar for many adults.
But the Bighorn Native Plant Society offers a chance to improve this state of affairs by providing educational opportunities for Sheridan area residents to identify and learn about the unique plant communities found on and near the Bighorn Mountains.
According to Dr. Ami Erickson, president of the society and professor of horticulture and life sciences at Sheridan College, the group began in 1999 under the leadership of Dr. Dick Birkholz, a biology professor at Sheridan College.
Jean Daly, along with Claire Leon, approached Birkholz with the idea of creating a local plant society modeled after the Wyoming Native Plant Society. Daly said at the time Birkholz had an upcoming program on plants of the area and made an announcement to all the participants about the formation of the new group. Almost 50 attendees signed up to learn more.
“I am not surprised at all,” Daly said about the group’s continued existence almost 20 years later. “It is so interesting and such a great group of people. It is so nice to get together with people who like the same thing and like to learn about plants.”
The society now has close to 100 members and operates with a six-member volunteer board. The majority of members reside in Sheridan and Johnson counties, but there are several members throughout the state and even some from out-of-state.
“Most of them are just community members who come from all walks of life,” Erickson said about the group. “They are not necessarily active in any sort of science or agricultural career or discipline. They are just people in the community who like to be outside, who like to garden or who like native plants and wildflowers, and they appreciate what we are doing.
“It is primarily educational and exposing people to the diversity of plant communities here in Wyoming and in the Bighorns,” she continued. “But we are definitely interested in conservation as well because those communities are pretty fragile and easily disrupted by different types of activities, and we want to make people aware of those impacts.”
The group’s approach to plant education is hands on. Each summer, beginning in May, the society offers free wildflower hikes in various areas of the Bighorns. The hikes are led by volunteers familiar with native plants and last a half day or longer. The first hikes are often held at low elevation locations such as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Amsden Wildlife Habitat Management Area, and as summer progresses and snow recedes, the hike locations move farther up the mountain as well.
“They are different people in the community that have a variety of backgrounds, including some who have worked for the Forest Service or the Game and Fish Department,” Erickson said about the volunteers. “Some just have favorite areas they like to go to and are willing to share that experience with other people.”
The spring and summer hikes focus on flowering plants, since showy flowers are often the easiest characteristic to use to help identify and differentiate plants. But Erickson said hikes held later in the fall circle back down to lower elevations for a second look at some of the same plants from earlier in the season.
“At the end of the summer we like to do lower elevation again so you can see the plants when they are putting on their fall color and fruiting and putting on seed,” she said. “That is another part of recognizing native plants. That part of their lifecycle is important too.”
Erickson said the Bighorns offer a variety of habitats, from prairies to wetlands, which creates unique plant communities, and in some cases offers one-of-a-kind viewing opportunities. For example, the stunning mountain lady’s slipper, a type of orchid, can be found in Montana, Idaho, California, Washington, Oregon and parts of Canada. However, in Wyoming, it has only been documented in Sheridan and Johnson counties, primarily in the Bighorn National Forest.
The hikes vary in length and walking difficulty, but most are appropriate for all ages and for families with children. For families with very young children or people with limited mobility, the group usually offers at least one summer outing that consists of a driving tour with stops in various parts of the county.
Members of the society, who pay just a $5 annual membership fee, also receive a twice-annual newsletter. The newsletter provides educational articles featuring profiles of local species. Recent newsletters have focused on fruiting trees and shrubs of the area, highlighting berries and other edibles that can be safely consumed.
All of the hikes are free and open to the public. Anyone interested in becoming a member and receiving the newsletters can contact Erickson at Ami.firstname.lastname@example.org or vice president Kris Korfanta at Krisk@fiberpipe.net.