Earth Healing The Health of the Bluegrass Is The Triangle Really Golden

The Health of the Bluegrass:
Is the Triangle Really Green?

Published by Earth Healing in cooperation with
EcoPerspectives, a project of Earth Island Institute



Endangered and Threatened Species

            Native biodiversity, the variety of native plants and animals, in the Bluegrass has decreased since the arrival of Euro-Americans.  Extensive logging by settlers replaced the forests that had covered the area, with croplands and pasture, and the majority of the wetlands were filled in.  The destruction of areas that sheltered wildlife continues today, with the development of highways, residences, and commercial and industrial buildings. 

                Kentucky as a whole is believed to have provided habitat for fifty-five species of plants and animals that are now extinct or that have been extirpated from the state but survive elsewhere.  Not all of the species lived in the Bluegrass but many of them did.  The list is made up of six vascular plants, including the Marsh Marigold flourishing elsewhere; twenty-two freshwater mussels with such intriguing names as Leafshell, White Wartyback, and Winged Mapleleaf; one insect, a mayfly; nine fish, three of them darters; one reptile, the Coachwhip snake; eleven birds, including the Passenger Pigeon, droves of which were once a common site in the Bluegrass; and four mammals: the American Bison, the Red Wolf, the Grey Wolf, and the Eastern Cougar (1).   The past importance of the American Bison in the Bluegrass  is reflected today in such names as Stamping Ground in Scott County and Big Bone Lick State Park in Boone County, also Buffalo Trace, now U.S. 68, which crossed the Ohio River Ford at Maysville and continued to Bluelicks. The bison and their predecessors were attracted to Kentucky by salt deposits.

            The disappearance of a species impacts other species that may feed on it, that are hunted by it, or that otherwise interact with it.  An increase in the deer population in the Bluegrass  is in part a result of the disappearance of the large predators, wolves and cougar, that kept the number of deer in check.

            Species are still becoming extinct or being extirpated from the state, and the pace of extinctions and extirpations will inevitably increase with global warming.  The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission (KSNPC) lists on its Web site, , 390 plant and 317 animal taxa that as of 2005 were rare, threatened, endangered, or of special concern in Kentucky.  Some of the species are also listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as Endangered, Threatened, or of Special Management Concern or are Candidates for such a listing.  The KSNPC monitors the species on its list.

            On the Internet the Commission helpfully breaks down the list of species that it monitors by county.  The county lists vary greatly among one another even in the Bluegrass.  On the list for Boone County, near Cincinnati, for instance are seven vascular plants, eight mussels, three fish, three amphibians, and seven birds.  Jefferson County to its south has on its list seventeen vascular plants, three snails, sixteen mussels, two crustaceans, six fish, four reptiles, twenty-three birds, and three mammals.   The county lists depend, of course, on the type of habitat in the county.  They may also depend to a degree on the thoroughness with which the county has been studied.  Not all areas of the state have been completely inventoried for wildlife.  Examples of  rare, threatened or endangered species that live in the Bluegrass for at least part of the year, are various freshwater mussels, a few orchids, two beetles, the Indiana Bat, Running Buffalo Clover, and Short’s Goldenrod

Mussels are of particular concern in Kentucky.  North America has a total of 297 native species of mussels.  Kentucky has 103 of these species belonging to 40 genera, one of the most varied mussel populations in North America.  State researchers have identified 46 of the state’s 103 species as of greatest conservation need.  Of these 19 species have also been recognized by the USFWS as Endangered and 2 are Candidates for federal listing.

Mussels are sensitive to changes in the quality of the water in which they live.  The degradation of streams has thus greatly impacted them.  They also suffer from such factors as commercial harvesting and the invasion of the zebra mussel from Europe and Asia, which encrusts native mussels and competes with them for food and space (2).

            Priority areas for mussel preservation and recovery within the Bluegrass include three segments of the Licking River, an area on the South Fork of the Licking River, and the Rolling Fork of the Salt River Basin.   Improving the water quality in these watersheds is urgent. 

            According to Ronald L. Jones, “About 50% of KY’s orchid species are now listed as rare in the state” (3).  Many of the orchids in Kentucky live to the south or east of the Bluegrass.  Among the few species that have been observed in the Bluegrass in the past or have been found there recently are Grass-Pink (Calopogon tuberosus), Sweetscent Ladies’-Tresses (Spiranthes odorata), and Shining Ladies’-Tresses (Spiranthes lucida).  Historic reports describe Grass-Pink, listed by KSNPC as endangered, in Garrard and Boyle Counties and counties immediately to their south and in Lewis County and counties to its south.  A bright pink flower as its name indicates, its habitat in Kentucky is “dry sandy pine(-oak) woods and swamps.”  Sweetscent Ladies’-Tresses, also a state endangered plant, is found today in swamps and marshes in Woodford County.  Shining Ladies’-Tresses, a state threatened plant, grows in wet forests and wet grassy openings in Clark County (4).  Orchids are very sensitive to changes in their environment. Orchid seeds cannot germinate unless they are in contact with a symbiotic fungus, and the orchids found in Kentucky cannot live without mycorrhizal fungi in their roots.  Many individual orchids have fallen victim to people digging up plants to be sold or for ingredients for herbal medicine (5).   

In an agreement to protect two threatened cave beetles, the City of Perryville and the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association have enrolled a cave in KSNPC’s Natural Areas Registry.  More than twenty species of beetles are on KSNPC’s list of endangered, threatened, and rare species .  The Old Well Cave Beetle (Pseudanophthalmus puteanus) and the Hidden Cave Beetle (Pseudanophthalmus conditus) are the subject of the Perryville agreement.  Both species live only in Kentucky.  The Old Well Beetle is known to survive in only three locations, in Boyle and Mercer Counties; the Hidden Cave Beetle, in four locations, all in Boyle County.  Haberson’s Cave in Perryville is home to both (6).   

 Fourteen species of bats regularly occur in Kentucky, seven of which are listed by the USFWS or by the state as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.  The Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis), on the lists of several counties, has been listed as Endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).  The total number of Indiana Bats in the United States is high, but falling, and the bats are particularly at risk when they are nesting or hibernating.  In 1960 the population estimate was 880,000; in 2004 it was around 380,000  (7).  The bats spread across the eastern United States in the summer but in the winter they hibernate  in caves in Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri.  Maternal colonies are found in the Bluegrass, but, as far as is known, the bats leave the area to hibernate.  In 2007 researchers banded Indiana Bats in a maternity colony in Spencer County, southeast of Louisville. They were surprised that two of the females flew in opposite directions to hibernate, one to Breckinridge County to the West and one to Rockcastle County to the East (8). 

            Running Buffalo Clover (Trifolium stoloniferum), another species listed as Endangered by USFWS was once common from West Virginia to Kansas, particularly along buffalo trails.  However, it depended on the buffalo to stir up the ground and distribute the seed.  With the disappearance of the buffalo from the East, the clover declined.  It was presumed to be extinct by 1985 when a botanist discovered a population in West Virginia. Now patches are known to exist in Missouri, Kentucky , and Ohio in addition to West Virginia.  One occurs in the lawn at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, in a residential area of Lexington.  Running Buffalo Clover bears white flowers and creeps along the ground like white clover, but differs from that species in the structure of the flower heads and leaves (9). 

            Short’s Goldenrod (Solidago shortii) is found only in two square miles of Fleming and Robertson Counties and in a small area in southern Indiana. Charles Wilkins Short discovered the species at the Falls of the Ohio near Louisville in the 1840s.  The construction of McAlpin Dam at the falls in the 1920s was thought to have wiped the species out, but Lucy Braun rediscovered it near Blue Licks Battlefield in Robertson County in 1939.  The patch in Indiana was discovered recently.  The plant is now protected within Blue Licks Battlefield State Park and at Short’s Goldenrod State Nature Preserve.  The goldenrod need open land on which to live, as they do not do well in shade. In the past the buffalo and then the mowing of farmers likely kept areas clear for them. Today staff and volunteers remove Eastern Red-Cedar and hardwoods at the preserves by cutting or burning.  Such efforts deserve support.

                                                                                               --Mary Byrd Davis

1.  Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, “Plants and Animals Presumed Extinct or Extirpated from Kentucky, November 2006,”  in Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, Biennial Report, January 2007, Appendix 3, pp. 55-56, available online at .

2.  Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Service, Kentucky’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, “2.2.3 Mussels (Class Bivalvia) Overview,” updated September 21, 2005, available online from .  

3.  Plant Life of Kentucky: An Illustrated Guide to the Vascular Flora (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2005), p. 649. 

4.  Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, Rare Plant Database, available online at, consulted July 8, 2008. 

5. Jones, Plant Life, p. 649.  

6.  Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, “Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission to Present Mayor of Perryville with Natural Areas Certificate” [Press release], July 8, 2008.

7. Myotis sodalis,” July 2004, available online at .

8. Brainard Palmer-Ball, “Biologists Answer Some of the Mysteries of Bat Life Histories,”  Naturally Kentucky, Spring 2008, no. 58, pp. 2-3.

9. N. L. Taylor and J. N. N. Campbell, “Buffalo Clover” and “Running Buffalo Clover,” available online at, posted September 1989.



Copyright © 2008 Earth Healing, Inc.  All rights reserved..