Friends and family not involved in the conservation field often ask me what I do at my job, and it is sometimes difficult to explain in words. In addition to conducting botanical inventories and endangered species surveys, my primary responsibility at JFNew is to monitor mitigation wetlands. But what does that entail?
A mitigation wetland is a wetland that has been created, restored, or enhanced to "offset" impacts to another wetland. In Indiana, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management regulate mitigation wetlands. My job is to sample vegetation and document water levels in these mitigation wetlands, and to write reports addressing the performance standards.
So what exactly is involed in sampling vegetation? Well, here's what it looks like...
In the photograph above, you can see a one-square meter quadrat frame engulfed in green. At our mitigation wetlands, linear transects made up of a string of these quadrats are located throughout the site. At each of these quadrats, my job is to record all vascular plant species rooted in the quadrat and their respective percent cover values. When I say all vascular plant species, I mean all vascular plant species. Nothing goes unrecorded, no matter how young or small, flowering or sterile. To do this right, one must get on hands and knees, dig through the razor-sharp Rice Cut Grass (Leersia oryzoides) and annoying clinging seeds of Devil's Beggars Ticks (Bidens frondosa), and spend time really looking for seedlings and senesced vegetation that may someday comprise a much larger part of the overall vegetation community. For interesting and accurate accounts of quadrat sampling, be sure to check out the commentary by Justin Thomas at The Vasculum (here) and Allison Vaughn at Ozark Highlands of Missouri (here).
The site where the quadrat above was located was a wetland that had been illegally filled in, and the fill was then removed to restore wetland conditions. My job is to determine whether or not wetland conditions are returning at the site, and if the vegetation that has come back is meeting performance standards including total coverage, coverage by native species, and coverage by certain invasive species. Many times at new mitigation sites, I can only find 10-20 or fewer species in a sampling quadrat. At this site, my quadrats averaged near 30 species each, and this particular quadrat harbored 35 species. Plants that I found in this quadrat include: Common Threeseed Mercury (Acalypha rhomboidea), Swamp Agrimony (Agrimonia parviflora), Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia var. elatior), New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae), Hairy Aster (Aster pilosus), Panicled Aster (Aster simplex), Yellow Rocket (Barbarea vulgaris), Devil's Beggars Ticks (Bidens frondosa), Frank's Sedge (Carex frankii), Limestone Meadow Sedge (Carex granularis), Brown Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea), Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense), Cut-leaved Teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus), Eastern Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), Marsh Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Hairy Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia var. nuttallii), Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica var. subintegerima), Rough Avens (Geum laciniatum), Fowl Manna Grass (Glyceria striata), Virginia Sticktight (Hackelia virginiana), Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), Path Rush (Juncus tenuis), Torrey's Rush (Juncus torreyi), Rice Cut Grass (Leersia oryzoides), Common Water Horehound (Lycopus americanus), Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens), Common Yellow Oxalis (Oxalis stricta), Curly Dock (Rumex crispus), Dark Green Rush (Scirpus atrovirens), River Bulrush (Scirpus fluviatilis), Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), Alsike Clover (Trifolium hybridum), Swamp Verbena (Verbena hastata), and White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia).
Unfortunately, not enough quadrat-level sampling takes place these days. In twenty years when we look back and wonder what happened to our natural areas, we will realize that we should have spent more time documenting the changes to our flora that were occurring at a level that most people don't comprehend instead of floundering in the fields of genetics and molecular botany.