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Endangered Plant Found in Ken-Caryl’s Foothills

While performing our annual deer counts this spring, I discovered an occurrence of Viola petatifida
(Birdfoot Violet) in the upper Massey Draw area. The Birdfoot Violet is Ranked S2, which according to
the Colorado Rare Plant Field Guide means that it is “imperiled in the state because of rarity or because
of other factors demonstrably making it very vulnerable to extirpation from the state.” The Birdfoot
Violet was ranked by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, an organization that tracks and ranks
Colorado’s rare and imperiled species and habitat. The occurrence at Ken‐Caryl has been verified by the
program’s lead botanist, Susan Spackman. We are currently in the process of recording the occurrence
through the Natural Heritage program. Although this discovery may seem to be happenstance, the find
has been a result of a long personal journey that I embarked on over 14 years ago.

One of my first seasonal positions out of college involved rare plant monitoring with the City of Boulder
Open Space. A lot of the time was spent scouring irrigated farm fields in a close‐knit pattern in search of
the Utes Lady Tress or counting populations of the Bell’s Twin Pod in shale outcrops. The Birdfoot Violet
monitoring fulfilled more of the romantic view of searching for rare plants. We would go out on our own
and probe remote areas for a few select individuals. When I finally came across a small population in the
foothills outside of Boulder, it appeared fragile in its surroundings but somehow survived in the tiny
niche that it inhabited. Realizing the hardiness of this rare flower and being impressed on how it had
beat the odds, I decided to set out to find an undiscovered population. Since that time, I have worked
for many agencies along the Front Range and covered many backcountry miles inspecting many lookalikes.
I always came up empty handed — until this year.

As usual during the early flowering season, I fell into my routine of checking every light purple flower
with a close inspection of the ground for the distinct leaves of the Birdfoot Violet. Lark spur, Blue Mist
Penstemon, and Skullcap all the usual imposters emerged as I combed the area. One opening in the
Gambel Oak seemed unique and moister then the adjacent landscape. The small area seemed to be
protected from the surrounding environment and ,in the middle, a tiny collection light purple flowers
were blooming shyly under the sun. I checked the flowers and to my surprise, they were unmistakably
violets. I quickly inspected the tiny leaves at the base and they were palmately dissected into narrow
lobes, which revealed the plant’s identity as a Birdfoot Violet. The celebration was short and the long
process of documenting the find began. As I studied the habitat further, the significance of the find
seemed to go far beyond the actual plant population by revealing critical habitats that we never knew
existed.

There is always sort of an empty feeling when a long journey is over and a discovery made, but the
search has taught me that through patience and careful observation nature’s secrets can be revealed . If
you have any questions about the find, don’t hesitate to call me at 303‐904‐0249 or contact me by email
at Garyn@kcranch .org.

by KCRMA Open Space Park Ranger Gary Norton

Ken-Caryl Ranch