Our Precious Jewels

by Jim Eagleman

When someone says they have a rare item—a book, painting, an antique toy—we immediately place it in a category of high monetary value. What’s it worth? If passed down from relatives, heirlooms usually trump any monetary value. We handle the item differently, set it aside, and give it added protection. We insure a rare item in case of loss and acknowledge with friends its exceptional importance. And too, we feel some intrinsic obligation to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate, to keep it safe for future generations.

All these inherent values placed on rare things can be applied to natural areas. Since rare, endangered, or threatened species of trees, plants, birds and animals exist locally and worldwide, the same custodial care can be exercised. It is part of being a concerned voter to educate myself on what is important ecologically. But I may feel my concern for endangered things in far-off countries needs to be applied closer to home. I hear this sentiment often expressed by well-intending landowners and suggest they look at what exists in lesser numbers right here in our Hoosier state. Awareness of rare things can add value and appreciation.

The Endangered, Threatened, and Rare Species List for each Indiana county is maintained and periodically updated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Division of Nature Preserves, with an office in Indianapolis. Brown County’s list is monitored frequently and particularly referred to each time any significant land change proposal is considered on any DNR project. DNR land already protected still requires thorough review if a site change is pending. Field surveys are conducted periodically by employees for species of concern and status is recorded.

Brown County is not a state leader in the lists of rare things, but it has species on both the state and federal lists. Species are listed because they are threatened, endangered, or rare and are assigned a status by the division. The status rating can change over time as field work is updated. The status takes into account the size of population, site health, encroachment/development, and whether the species is found widespread or in a limited area. The actual natural community in which the species is found is also given a status rating as the environment is critical over time and can change.

Seemingly insignificant species of insects, like the Northern Hairstreak butterfly or a plant like the Ridged Yellow Flax, may not excite most people. “Why bother listing these things if they are that uncommon? Most of us will never see them. Who cares about a beetle or a fly whose name I don’t recognize, a mussel in a slow-moving stream, or some silly bird like the Henslow’s Sparrow? I don’t know these plants or animals, I assume they can pass out of existence and nothing will happen, and it’s just a waste of taxpayer money to investigate.” It’s thinking like this we must guard against because every species, however trivial, has a job to do.

The analogy of a plant having a “job” helps us comprehend the role things play. To consider positions in food chains, complicated living systems that function “behind the scenes,” and to imagine parts that make up a whole, is to appreciate these intricate elements. However inconsequential or petty these components, it sometimes takes their disappearance before we notice something is different and something isn’t right. “Saving all the parts” is the key to intelligent tinkering, as stated by noted conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

Like rare jewels, rare flowers, shrubs, ferns, and grasses can increase value to landscapes and homeowner inventories. Less common insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals all have jobs, niches to the biologist, and fulfill a duty. Awareness and appreciation of what we have, protection of all natural resources, and considering all of nature to be of value are foundations of active conservation. But the key to abundance in nature, as has always been the case, is private lands in private ownership. How we manage our own lands will determine future diversity and health.