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With rare chickweed in bloom, ecologists gather in Baltimore to celebrate biodiversity

ConservationNatural ResourcesEcosystemsMarine ScienceEndangered Species

Leading a tour of the Soldiers Delight area of western Baltimore County on Sunday afternoon, Paula Becker, an ecologist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, was pleased to report the first blooming of serpentine chickweed — a plant as rare as it is splashy in spring.

And while that might not constitute earth-shattering news, it is certainly reassuring to those monitoring the health of the plant. Serpentine chickweed grows in the shallow serpentine soil of the strange, hilly grasslands of the Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, at 2,000 acres the largest remaining ecosystem of its kind in the country.

Marked by oak savannas and prairies, Soldiers Delight, near Owings Mills, has at least 39 rare, threatened or endangered plant species, according to the DNR. Visitors are asked to stay on the seven miles of trails and refrain from picking the chickweed, among other rare plants.

The area is itself a tiny vestige of the estimated 100,000 acres of serpentine savanna that covered central Maryland when colonists arrived and discovered a "great barrens" of grass and gnarled and stubby trees. Buffalo once roamed the region.

Becker's field trip to Soldiers Delight provided an appropriate launch Sunday for an annual conference of ecologists, biologists and information specialists devoted to preserving the most fragile ecosystems and the increasingly rare animals and plants that live in them.

Biodiversity Without Boundaries 2013 is being held this week at the Tremont Suites Hotel in Baltimore, and is organized by NatureServe, a nonprofit that connects conservationists with the science they need to support their efforts.

Twenty years ago, NatureServe picked up a mission started by the Nature Conservancy 20 years before that — maintaining an international network of programs that monitor and keep inventories of rare and endangered plants and animals and threatened ecosystems.

There are 82 such programs in the network, stretching from Canada to the Caribbean, and in all 50 states. The Wildlife and Heritage Service of Maryland's DNR is a member of the network.

Based in Arlington, Va., NatureServe's network has online data on some 70,000 plants, animals and ecosystems to help public and private conservation programs, landowners and corporations make informed decisions about managing natural resources.

The organization responds to 6 million online inquiries per year, said Mary Klein, president and CEO, noting the robust demand for scientific information as human populations put more pressure on ecosystems everywhere.

With this year's Biodiversity Without Boundaries conference in Baltimore, there will be some focus on conservation efforts in the Chesapeake region and the mid-Atlantic, where the challenge of balancing population growth with conservation is keen.

"There is so much pressure on the land," said Klein, noting that plants and animals that rely on fresh water ecosystems are having the hardest time. "There are so many demands on water resources."

On Sunday, those attending the conference had their pick of several field trips. In addition to Soldiers Delight, attendees could go paddling on a tributary near Calvert Cliffs, bird watching at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge or "bog turtling" at a site in Central Maryland. Those wishing to stay closer to the Tremont were invited to tour the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Throughout the week, the conference will host a slate of presentations based on case studies, research and methodology, with biologically diverse titles such as: "Cocaine, Cattle & Tropical Deforestation in Rio Platano, Honduras," "Inventory of Orchids & Bromeliads, Jovel Valley, Chiapas, Mexico," and "The Baird's tapir as a Tool to Strengthen the Guatemalan Protected Areas System."

Scott Smith, a wildlife ecologist with Maryland's DNR, is on the agenda with his paper from the Chesapeake region: "Are More Regulations the Answer to Conservation Problems? A Case Study of Diamondback Terrapins and Recreational Crab Pots in Maryland," while Julie Eckenrode, a conservation biologist from Pennsylvania State University, weighs in with "Captive Rearing of the Regal Fritillary Butterfly at Fort Indiantown Gap."

The conference, co-hosted by the Maryland Natural Heritage Program, runs through Thursday, with more than 225 expected to attend.

"We're Noah's Ark," Klein said of NatureServe and the ecologists who use it as a resource for their work.

"With the tide of land use changing and putting so much pressure on our natural environment, we have to make the effort to save the plants and animals as the world changes around them," she said.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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