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Earth Notes: Capitol Reef Rare Plant Study

Sheila Murray

A team of botanists with the Arboretum at Flagstaff just finished a two-year survey of three rare plant species found at Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah: the endangered Wright’s fishhook cactus, the threatened Winkler’s pincushion cactus and the Last Chance Townsend Daisy.

Each of the surveyed species grows in a retired livestock grazing area within the park. Though cattle have long-since been removed from Capitol Reef, the plants face other obstacles to survival, including predators, drought and climate change. Outside park boundaries, they face threats from mining and off-road vehicles. Rare cacti like the Wright’s fishhook and Winkler’s pincushion are especially subject to illegal collecting.

The research team was able to verify earlier known locations and population densities of the plants. Some are so diminutive in size the botanists had to crawl on the desert floor to locate them.  

They are most easily spotted in spring when in full bloom: a pop of magenta flowers on a Wright’s fishhook cactus or the cream-colored flowers of Last Chance daisies. The Winkler’s cactus looks like a tiny, prickly ball. It was first documented at Capitol Reef in the 1960’s by Agnes Winkler and her teenage son Jim who were there on a family vacation.

The park plans to continue regular monitoring of the rare plants to collect more data on the overall stability – or decline – of each species. The information might lead to new recovery methods aimed at survival and longevity.