Endangered Species Success Story: Running Buffalo Clover

Running Buffalo Clover
A close-up of the running buffalo clover flower.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed running buffalo clover (Trifolium stolonifierum) from the federal endangered species list. Running buffalo clover is a small, herbaceous plant that flowers in May and produces runners, known as stolons, which “run” along the surface of the ground. This rare species occurs in several Great Parks, and Shawnee Lookout is home to one of the largest populations in state of Ohio.

For several decades, running buffalo clover was thought to be extinct, having last been seen in the wild in the 1940s. However, a relict population was discovered in West Virginia in 1983, and as more botanists became aware of what to look for, additional populations were found. Many of these newly discovered populations were declining due to increased development and changing environmental conditions, and the species was listed as endangered by the federal government in 1987.

A group of individuals places flags everywhere a running buffalo clover is spotted. They are in a sunny field.
The 2019 running buffalo clover monitoring at Shawnee Lookout. Each flag marks an individual plant. More than 680 running buffalo clover plants are marked in this photo!

Through research and monitoring efforts across its range, it became apparent that running buffalo clover was disturbance-dependent. This means that this plant requires a certain amount of habitat disturbance to persist. In the case of running buffalo clover, which requires dappled sunlight and doesn’t persist in shady woodlands, this disturbance likely used to be provided by bison and other megafauna, as well as flood scouring along creeks.

With bison absent from the Great Parks landscape, today this disturbance is provided by specifically-timed mowing and removal of invasive plants. Regular mowing and maintenance of vegetation in the areas near the Miami Fort Trail and American Indian mounds have likely contributed to the success of running buffalo clover at Shawnee Lookout. This management has allowed the Shawnee Lookout population to increase from about 100 individual plants when monitoring started in 1988, to more than 2,000 plants today.

Running Buffalo Clover
An American Indian mound can be seen in the background of this field of running buffalo clover growing at Shawnee Lookout.

Documenting recovery stories like this is part of what led the Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the species could safely be taken off of the endangered species list. Part of the delisting process for any species involves setting up a monitoring plan to ensure that the species does not begin to decline again without Endangered Species Act protections. The Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to monitor running buffalo clover populations for at least five years, and Great Parks will continue to partner with them to monitor populations on park land. And, of course, we will continue to manage running buffalo clover habitat so this rare and unusual species will continue to persist in Hamilton County.

Read more about this recovered plant on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s website.

Daniel Kovar, Conservation Biologist; Adam McCosham, Conservation & Parks Manager; and Kari Morehouse, Natural Resources Manager