The Plant Police: Protecting Endangered Species in N.C.

by | Apr 20, 2022

We Are Agriculture is a year-long series that will highlight the hard-work done by employees across the Department of Agriculture. Lesley Starke, N.C. Plant Conservation Program Manager with our Plant Industry Division, is one of those employees. Stay tuned each Wednesday here on the blog or any of our social media accounts and join us in honoring those who continue to drive our state’s agriculture industry forward each day!

The agriculture industry offers a wide array of career paths, including biology and plant study. Although she never imagined she would establish a career within agriculture, Lesley Starke, N.C. Plant Conservation Program Manager with our Plant Industry Division, grew up with an interest in agriculture that eventually led to a unique profession. “I have always had an interest in agriculture, especially small and organic farms because I grew up around them,” she said, “but I couldn’t have predicted that I would have ended up in this industry simply due to the nature of my interests in conservation biology, environmental management, plant studies and wildlife.”

After obtaining her undergraduate degree at Hampshire College in Biology and Animal Behavior, Lesley went on to pursue her graduate degree at Duke University in Environmental Management. During her time at Duke, Lesley held two internships at local land trusts where she learned how to design and manage nature preserves and steward endangered species. “One of the people that I worked with throughout these internships was currently on staff with the NCDA&CS Plant Conservation Program,” Lesley said. “I got to work with them and learned a lot from them that has helped me throughout my career.” Upon completing graduate school, twelve years ago, Lesley started her job with the NCDA&CS and has loved it ever since!

The Plant Conservation Program works to protect the native plants across our state and ensure their success in future generations. Lesley and her staff help bridge the gap between nursery owners and operators working with imperiled native plants and also protecting the wild populations of our rarest species across a statewide network of twenty-six Plant Conservation Preserves. Examples of those rare plants include the Venus Flytrap, American Ginseng and Pitcher Plants. “Our program is unique because it is statewide, so my day-to-day responsibilities can change a lot depending on the season, what’s growing and where I am needed,” Lesley said. “I make sure that the threatened plants in our state have the support and programs available that they need to weather the threats that they face and to ensure that they do not become extinct.” Building connections and networking with nurseries across the state is a vital part of this effort to ensure native plants in the nursery trade are protected each year.

According to current rules and regulations, nurseries must have proper paperwork in order to sell protected plant species. This paperwork ensures that the plants are not being harvested from the wild, but rather are being propagated legally and responsibly. This is a service our program provides not only to the nursery growers and operators, but to the public of North Carolina who are interested in gardening with our native flora, sometimes including imperiled species.

Ensuring the health and wellness of our state’s native plant species is vitally important to the agriculture industry for many reasons, including wildlife management and sustainability, stewarding biodiversity and potential plant benefits. “North Carolina is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, and protecting our native plants is the best way to ensure that biodiversity in future years,” Lesley said. “Plants are not just the background, but they are the crux of everyday life and they are valuable species worthy of protection in our state. These native plants that we protect today could have health benefits, environmental benefits or even be used in the cure to an illness or disease someday.” In addition to working with nurseries across the state, Lesley takes part in various on-the-ground missions to ensure the care and vitality of our state’s wild and naturally growing native plants.

Habitat protection is a large part of what our Plant Conservation Program does. Boots on the ground missions allow Lesley and her colleagues to maintain the land and take care of the plants where they are naturally growing. One of Lesley’s favorite missions that she takes part in each year is to monitor and preserve the Northern Oconee Bells in Marion. “The Northern Oconee Bells are a very rare plant, in fact many of them grow within a five-mile radius in Marion,” Lesley said. “Each year our team surveys the areas this plant is found to update our records and monitor the health and sustainability of the biggest population of this plant in the world.” Another native plant indigenous to North Carolina is the Venus Flytrap. “Although native to both Carolinas, the Venus Flytrap is North Carolina’s pride-and-joy because it is primarily found in our state, and nowhere else in the world,” Lesley said.

The public can be involved with these missions as well as other projects being undertaken by the Plant Conservation Program through their nonprofit membership group, The Friends of Plant Conservation. “This group allows people to learn more about what we do and become involved with our projects,” Lesley said. “We all can make a difference to protect these plants and make the world a better place, even if it is doing something as simple as asking questions at your local nursery to ensure your plants are coming from appropriate and approved sources.”

In addition to working with the public to ensure native plant conservation, the Plant Conservation Program team works with a variety of other state organizations, including the N.C. Wildlife Commission. “In previous years, our team mostly acted as the triage room for native species that were close to extinction,” Lesley said, “but now we are at a point where we can start looking more broadly toward the future of protecting these plants.” One of the projects she is currently spearheading is with the N.C. Wildlife Commission to have native plants added to the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan. “The Wildlife Action Plan is a conservation strategy for the state,” she said. “Its tagline is ‘Keeping Common Species Common,’ which is complementary to the main goal and purpose with the Plant Conservation Program.” The addition of plants to the Wildlife Action Plan would increase funding and partnership opportunities to help further plant conservation efforts across the state.

When she is not on the clock, Lesley can be found looking for and enjoying nature with her husband! “I guess that goes to show how much I truly love what I do, because I even do these same things during my down time,” she said. Lesley and her husband love to hike and discover new areas and plants in North Carolina and abroad. They can also be found bird watching most weekends. Join us in thanking Lesley for her hard work protecting the native plants of our beautiful state!