Native Plants of Wyoming
Created on April 4, 2023
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Pine siskin (Spinus pinus) Pine siskins are very small songbirds with sharp pointed bills. Although their patterns look similar to sparrows, they are in the finch family. Pine siskins have brown streaks on their cream-colored breast and patches of yellow on their wings and tails. Pine siskins flock together twittering to each other as they forage in trees, shrubs, and grasses. Their diet consists mostly of conifer seeds (including from spruce, birch and alder trees), but also from weeds and grasses. They can cling to branch tips hanging upside down picking seeds from pine cones. Siskins also feed on insects, including caterpillars and aphids. To protect their eggs from cold damage, females make well-insulated nests, usually in a conifer tree with twigs, grass, strips of bark, roots, animal hair, feathers and moss. Females remain continuously on the nest, fed by the male. To survive very cold temperatures, Pine siskins increase their metabolic rate to a level that is 40% higher than the metabolism of a typical songbird of their size. They can increase their rate even higher on the coldest of nights.
Broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) Wyoming is home to at least three species of hummingbirds, including the Broad-tailed hummingbird, a medium sized hummingbird with a green back and white eye ring. The male has a rose-colored throat. These hummingbirds feed on the nectar of red tubular flowers, such as Wyoming paintbrush and insects, which they can grab in mid-air or take from spider webs. While feeding on nectar, they hover, using their long tongues and beaks to drink the nectar, incidentally transferring pollen from one flower to another on their foreheads. Hummingbirds can maneuver in every direction, beating their wings about 50 beats per second.
Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti) Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly is a member of the Brushfoot (Nymphalidae) family, a large, diverse family of butterflies. Brushfoots derive their name from their shorter forelegs which have tiny hairs. They use their shorter forelegs, not for walking but for tasting and smelling. Wyoming has about 60 species of brushfoots, including fritillaries, checkerspots, and monarchs. Brush-footed butterflies generally have large, prominent knobs on their antennae. The host plant for Milbert’s tortoiseshell caterpillars is nettles. Adults seek nectar from a variety of flowers, including nettles, goldenrods, and lilacs, incidentally collecting pollen. They also feed on sap, rotting fruit, and dung. Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterfly is medium sized and the upper-side of their wings are dark brown to black with a wide orange band and the tip of their forewing is squared-off.
Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) Cedar waxwings are plump songbirds with pale brown heads and chests, and grey wings. Their face has a narrow black mask outlined in white and their bellies are pale yellow as are the tips of their tales. Cedar waxwings inhabit woodlands, particularly along streams but they can also be found in grasslands and sagebrush. Cedar waxwings feed on small fruit and berries, including serviceberry. They are one of the few birds that can live on fruit alone for several months. In summer, they catch protein-rich flying insects, including mayflies, dragonflies, and stoneflies and pick up caterpillars, beetles, ants, and spruce budworm from vegetation. Cedar waxwings are social birds forming large flocks that nest in clusters. Females do most of the nest building with twigs, grasses, and horsehair, lining the nest with fine roots, grasses and pine needles. Constructing the nest can take several days and may require more than 2,500 trips to the nest. At first, their young nestlings are fed insects and then berries after a few days.
Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) Serviceberry is an early blooming large flowering shrub that provides important food and habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. As one of the earliest shrubs to bloom, its flowers provide important nectar and pollen for emerging bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators. Its leaves provide food for many types of butterfly larvae, and its berries, high in vitamin C, manganese, and iron, attract a wide variety of birds, including waxwings, tanagers, chickadees, and grosbeaks. Ungulates, such as mule deer, elk and moose browse its twigs and leaves. Its dense growth also provides shelter for birds and small mammals. Native Americans have used serviceberries for food and different parts of the shrub for medicinal purposes.
Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) Clark’s Nutcrackers are pale grey birds with black wings, beak, and legs and are the size of a jay. Clark’s nutcrackers are found in Wyoming’s high elevation evergreen forests in mountain habitat where they travel in flocks using their sharp bills to crack ripe and unripe pine cones to eat the nutritious seeds. The Clark’s nutcracker has evolved mutualistic relationships with 5-needle pines that benefits both the nutcracker and the pines. The large wingless seeds of 5-needle pines, including whitebark and limber pines, receive dispersal assistance from nutcrackers, which are almost exclusively responsible for their seed dispersal and thus their regeneration. Each summer nutcrackers collect tens of thousands of pine seeds, their preferred food source to cache away for the winter and spring when other food sources are unavailable. Nutcrackers place the seeds in a pouch under their tongue to cache them at nearby sites or up to 15 miles away. With its bill, it digs a hole in soil where it deposits a cluster of seeds, then covers up the hole or it pushes seeds into gravelly soil or crevices in wood. During the winter and spring, Clark’s nutcrackers relocate caches of seeds by remembering where they lie in relation to nearby objects like rocks, logs, and trees. Research has shown that nutcrackers have such good memories they can relocate seeds more than nine months after caching them. The seeds they don’t retrieve play an important role in the regeneration of new pine forests. It’s believed that for some high-elevation pines, such as whitebark pine, many of the trees present come from seeds planted by a Clark’s nutcracker. Nutcrackers use the cached seeds to feed both themselves and their young. Clark’s nutcrackers also opportunistically eat insects and spiders, and small vertebrates such as other birds, ground squirrels, chipmunks, voles, toads, and carrion.
Sage thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus) Sage thrasher birds are found in the sagebrush steppes of Wyoming. The Sage thrasher is mostly a ground-foraging insectivore that feeds on grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, wasps, and other insects. It also eats berries and other wild fruits, particularly in winter. The Sage thrasher relies on large expanses of sagebrush habitat to provide adequate cover for protection from predators and successful breeding. Building nests in sagebrush makes the nests less visible to predators and protects the eggs and fledglings from direct sunlight and excessive heat. The primary threat to Sage thrasher habitat is agricultural cultivation, domestic grazing, invasion of nonnative species, such as cheat grass, and fragmentation from oil and gas development. According to the 2011 State of the Birds report prepared by 33 leading science and conservation organizations and agencies, Bureau of Land Management lands are particularly important habitat, supporting more than two-thirds of the U.S. distribution of Sage thrasher, whose population is declining.
Saw-sepal penstemon (Penstemon glaber) Penstemon glaber’s beautiful purple-blue tubular flowers provide protein-rich pollen and energy-rich nectar for pollinators, including many species of native bees, wasps, moths, and long-tongued flies. Small songbirds, such as sparrows eat penstemon seeds. Wyoming is home to more than 40 species of Penstemon; they can be found in nearly every habitat across the state.
Wyoming Indian paintbrush (Castilleja linariifolia) Wyoming paintbrush is Wyoming’s state flower. Bees and hummingbirds, such as the Broad-tailed hummingbird are attracted to the nectar-rich flowers. Most paintbrushes are partially parasitic or hemi-parasitic—they carry out photosynthesis but obtain water and some mineral nutrients from host plants, such as sagebrush, grasses, and lupines. Native Americans have used paintbrush for food, medicinal purposes, and as a dye.
Two-tailed swallowtail butterfly (Papilio multicaudata) The two-tailed swallowtail is a large butterfly (up to 6” wingspan) that can be found throughout Wyoming. Their yellow wings have four black stripes and a thick black border with small spots of blue above the “tails”. This butterfly feeds on floral nectar. In turn, the butterfly pollinates the flower with its feet and proboscis as it feeds, ensuring the flower’s reproductive success. Swallowtail caterpillars feed on ash, chokecherry and hop trees.
Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) Silvery lupines have violet, pea-like flowers with silvery-green leaves that are shaped like a palm (leaflets that come out from the center like the fingers on a palm). Lupines are the host plant for the Silvery blue caterpillar. Lupines receive nitrogen from bacteria residing in their roots, which take nitrogen from air and convert it to an organic form usable by lupines to form proteins. In exchange, the bacteria receive carbohydrates from the host plant. This symbiotic relationship between lupines and the nitrogen-fixing bacteria provides the hemi-parasitic paintbrush with nitrogen resources. Paintbrush also takes alkaloids (which are bitter and toxic to animals) from lupine, which some studies have shown act as defense mechanism against hungry insect herbivores. Native Americans have used lupine as a food source and for medicinal uses.
Bebb’s willow (Salix bebbiana) Bebb’s willow is one of nearly 50 kinds of willow found in Wyoming’s riparian habitats. Willows typically start blooming in early April, when few other plants are in bloom. Because of this, they are a critical source of high protein pollen and sweet nectar for bees (including specialist bees), moths, butterflies, and other pollinators in early spring, when these insects are beginning to emerge from winter dormancy. Soon after flowering, willow fruit ripens, followed by seed dispersal. Willows provide seeds for birds, including yellow warblers. Moose, elk and deer forage on willow leaves and many small mammals, birds and beavers eat willow shoots, buds, and catkins. Willows also provide cover and protection for many birds and mammals and shade for fish in streams and ponds. Willows have been used by Native Americans for many purposes, including covering pole tents with willow branches, to make baskets, arrow shafts, and fish traps, and for medicinal uses, including to soothe aches and pains. Willow’s active ingredient is salicin, a chemical that formed the basis for making aspirin.
Silvery blue caterpillar (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) Like all butterflies, the Silvery blue goes through four stages to complete metamorphosis from egg, to caterpillar, to pupa, and then to an adult butterfly. In the second stage, the Silvery blue caterpillar is green with a marron line that runs across its body. Unlike adult butterflies who sip nectar through their proboscis, caterpillars chew their food. Silvery blue caterpillars voraciously feed on the leaves, seed pods, and flowers of lupines and grow quickly. Silvery blue caterpillars secrete a sweet nutritious substance that attracts ants. Ants feed on the sweet substance and in turn protect and defend the caterpillars from predators. Silvery blue caterpillars also have little spikes or tubercles that they can push out of their bodies when threatened by a predator. These tubercles release a chemical that mimics an ant alarm pheromone causing the ants to become agitated and aggressive toward the predator. The predator either leaves or is eaten by the ants. This symbiotic relationship or mutualism benefits both the caterpillars and the ants. There is only one new generation of caterpillars each growing season. The pupae overwinter and then emerge in spring or summer as Silvery blue butterflies. The male butterfly is silvery blue on the upperside while the female is blue to brown. Both of their wings are edged in black but the females have thicker black borders. They can be found in a variety of habitats, including meadows, open woodlands, fields and along streams.
Mason bee (Hoplitis sp.) Wyoming is home to more than 700 species of bees. Native mason bees in the genera Osmia and Hoplitis are small with metallic blue, green, or back bodies. Mason bees construct nests in existing holes, including holes in the ground, stems, and rock crevices. These bees often use mud to construct partitions walls between cells, and after the female has provisioned the eggs with pollen and nectar, she constructs a thicker plug to seal the entrance from parasites. Unlike social bumble bees or honey bees that live in colonies, the vast majority of bees, like mason bees are solitary. Many mason bees are generalists, collecting pollen from a variety of flowers, but some specialize on certain flowers, like penstemon and phacelia. Mason bees are very efficient pollinators because they are able to collect pollen in colder temperatures, allowing them to be active earlier and longer in a single day and active more frequently than many insects.
American yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia) The American yellow warbler, is a beautiful yellow songbird that is found throughout Wyoming near streams and wetlands in thickets of willows and other riparian shrubs. The males are brighter yellow than the females. Yellow warblers are primarily insectivores and eat caterpillars, midges, beetles, and wasps, but they will also eat some berries, especially during winter. Female warblers build and maintain the nests and incubate and brood the offspring, while male warblers protect the nests, collect food and give it to the females, who feeds the chicks (usually 3-6 on average). Three to four weeks after hatching, the young chicks are independent from their parents.
Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes verpertinus) The Evening grosbeak is a large songbird found in coniferous forests of Wyoming. It eats seeds, berries, nuts, and buds of trees and shrubs. With their strong beaks, they can crush hard seeds or pits, such as chokecherries. These birds peel off the fleshy meat surrounding the pit and then crack open the pit and eat the tissue inside. Smaller birds, like Pine siskins, whose beaks are less strong, look for Evening grosbeaks to find the fleshy scraps they leave behind. In summer, Evening grosbeaks are beneficial insectivores, eating spruce budworms, a forest pest that attacks new growth on spruce and fir trees. The 2022 State of the Birds Report published by 33 leading science and conservation organizations and agencies identified the Evening grosbeak as one of 70 “tipping point species” that has lost 90% of its population since 1970 and is projected to continue to decline. Scientists are trying to understand why.
Mourning cloak caterpillar (Nymphalis antiopa) Mourning cloak butterflies are between 2 - 3.5 inches. They have dark maroon-brown colored wings with blue spots at the edge and a yellow border. The dark wings of mourning cloaks allow them to camouflage on tree bark and hide in leaves from predators. Mourning cloaks are one of the earliest butterflies to emerge in the spring because they overwinter as adults and can fly at low temperatures, unlike most butterflies. Their dark colored wings act like a solar collector that allows them to heat up by basking in the sun. Their bodies also have hair-like bristles that keep their body insulated, and they have the ability to contract their flight muscles rapidly to generate heat. These qualities allow them to increase their body temperature up to 5 degrees and fly at temperatures below 50 degrees. Mourning cloaks lay their eggs on willows, cottonwoods, aspens, birch, and elm trees because these trees are host trees for their caterpillars, who feed on their leaves. Mourning cloak butterflies prefer tree sap and rotting fruit to flowers but they will feed on willows or other early blooming shrubs.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) Chokecherry berries, leaves, and twigs are an important food source for many wildlife species. Large mammals, such as bears, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, elk, deer, and coyotes feed on chokecherries. In sufficient quantities, the leaves can be lethal to ruminants and the pits of the fruit (but not the fleshy meat surrounding the pit) are also toxic. Small mammals, such as rabbits, hares, rodents, and squirrels seek its fruit. Birds, such as the Evening grosbeak eat the cherries and use its shrubby growth for cover and nesting habitat. The early spring blossoms provide an important source of protein-rich nectar for butterflies, moths, native bees, and ants. Two-tailed swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on chokecherries so that when they hatch they have access to one of their favorite food sources. Chokecherries have been an important part of the diet of Native Americans and were also used for medicinal purposes, and to make dyes, arrow shafts, and bows. European settlers also used chokecherries in their diet.
Plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides) The Plains cottonwood tree is Wyoming’s state tree. This is a fast growing, tall tree that lives near water. A plains cottonwood can reach up to 80’ high with a canopy spread of 50 to 60 feet. Its leaves are triangular shaped (this name “deltoides” comes from the Greek word meaning “triangular”). Cottonwoods supply critical ecological benefits along streams and rivers. Their tall canopies provide shade that cools the water benefitting fish and other aquatic life. Their roots stabilize streambanks, reducing erosion. Branches that fall in the channel trap sediment and provide cover for fish and other aquatic species. Leaves become food for invertebrates, such as stoneflies, caddisflies and mayflies. Cottonwoods are also the host plant for many moth and butterfly caterpillars and the cavities in their bark provide nesting habitat for many birdsthat feast on caterpillars. Field mice, rabbits, and deer eat the bark and leaves of young cottonwood trees.
Meadow thistle (Cirsium scariosum var. scariosum) Many people believe all thistles are weeds, but Wyoming is home to many native thistles, like meadow thistle, that are important components of our ecosystems. Meadow thistles are found among other native flowering plants and grasses and rarely dominate the land. The meadow thistle has a single leafy stem that is covered in white hairs, and topped with a cluster of pink to purple flower heads. Pollinators, like bumble bees and butterflies are attracted en masse to thistles for their nectar. Elk, deer, and bears eat the young growth and flowers of thistles, and birds and small rodents eat their seeds. Native Americans enjoyed eating the spines and roots of this thistle, which is high in Vitamin C.
Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) The Greater sage-grouse can be found in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe habitats. Sage-grouse nest on the ground in and among sagebrush, and sagebrush leaves are their primary food source in winter. In other seasons, the Greater sage-grouse also eats leaves, flowers, and buds of a variety of native plants, including sulphur buckwheat, pussytoes, phlox, and arrowleaf balsamroot. It also feeds on insects found in the sagebrush habitat. Sagebrush shelters and protects sage-grouse, their nests, and their newly hatched chicks from predators. Native grasses and other flowering shrubs provide further screening from predators. The physical structure of sagebrush also provides important thermal protection for sage-grouse during cold and windy conditions. The Greater sage-grouse is best known for its dramatic courtship display in spring when large numbers of males gather at their annual dancing grounds, called leks, where they strut with their chests puffed out and spread their spiked feathers hoping to attract females. The Greater sage-grouse population in the western United States has declined significantly (by as much as 80%) over the last 53 years. Western Wyoming holds the largest contiguous Greater sage-grouse habitat and 38% of the world’s population of Greater sage-grouse. Coyotes, badgers, eagles and other raptors are their primary predators in unaltered habitat, and ravens, red foxes, and skunks are more recent predators where humans have altered the ecosystem.
Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. vaseyana) Mountain big sagebrush is found in the sagebrush steppes and mountain slopes of Wyoming. The evergreen leaves and abundant seeds of Mountain big sagebrush provide excellent fall and winter browse for many mammals, including mule deer, black-tailed deer, white-tailed deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and jack rabbits. Mountain big sagebrush also provides protective cover for smaller mammals, such as rabbits, mice, voles, and squirrels, and food and habitat for many invertebrates, including beetles, moths, grasshoppers, ants, and spiders. Small mammals, reptiles, and many birds, including the Sage thrasher depend on these invertebrates as a food source. Sage thrasher birds, for example, eat mostly insects and berries found in big sagebrush habitat. Two other varieties of big sagebrush occupy lower elevation and drier sites than mountain big sagebrush, and provide equally valuable habitat. Mountain big sagebrush has been used by Native American tribes for medicinal purposes and to make ropes and baskets.
Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Monarch butterflies have bright orange wings covered with black veins and rimmed with a black border and white dots. Monarchs lay eggs singly under the leaf of a milkweed plant and through metamorphosis (the transition from egg to butterfly), they become butterflies in about a month. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves that contain cardiac glycosides, which are poisonous to most herbivorous insects and birds. However, monarchs can block the effects of milkweed’s toxins, and, rather than succumb to their effects, they sequester the toxin in their bodies. These toxins deter hungry predators from eating them. Predators recognize the brightly colored markings of monarch caterpillars (yellow, black and white) and adult butterflies, and avoid eating them. The most amazing thing about monarch butterflies is the enormous migration North American monarch butterflies make each year. As temperatures drop, millions of monarchs begin their flight south to warmer climates in Southern California or Mexico, between 2,500 to 3,000 miles. Scientists are still trying to figure out how monarchs know where to go because they only make the migration journey once in their lives. Habitat destruction, loss of milkweed plants, pesticide use, and dramatic climatic events, such as prolonged droughts and more frequent hurricanes have impacted monarch populations and made their migration more difficult.
Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) Antelope bitterbrush is found on Wyoming’s mountain slopes, often with sagebrush. It is an important food source for wildlife, providing protein for pronghorn, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and moose. Antelope bitterbrush also supports many different insects, including ants and tent caterpillars, and its fragrant flowers are an important nectar resource. Nutritious seeds of the antelope bitterbrush provide food for birds (including the Greater sage-grouse and Sage thrasher) and small rodents (including rabbits, voles, and squirrels). Antelope bitterbrush shrubs can live for decades, in part because of their long taproot (up to 18’ long), which allows them to access groundwater deep beneath the soil and regenerate after grazing animals have eaten their leaves. The branches and leaves of antelope bitterbrush also provide protection to birds and small mammals from predators and heat. Native Americans have used antelope bitterbrush for medicinal purposes, for dyeing, and for firewood.
Sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) Sulphur buckwheat plants can be found in the sagebrush steppes of Wyoming. The nectar of sulphur buckwheat flowers attracts a wide variety of bees, butterflies and other native pollinators. Bees produce a dark honey from its nectar. It is also the host plant for the larvae of some butterflies, such as Sheridan’s green hairstreak. Many species of birds and small mammals rely on the seeds produced by sulphur buckwheat. Sage-grouse, quail, deer, and mountain sheep eat their leaves and sage-grouse chicks eat insects found on the plants. Different parts of sulphur buckwheat have been used by Native American tribes to treat a variety of ailments.
Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) Wyoming is home to several species of milkweed plants. One species, showy milkweed, has beautiful pink flowers that provide nectar for a variety of insects, including native bees, honey bees, moths, butterflies, flies, wasps, and beetles. Milkweed flowers are very complex, and pollination is complicated—a waxy packet of pollen must be inserted into a narrow slit on the flower’s “crown.” Milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides in their leaf tissues, which are poisonous to most herbivorous insects and birds, but a few insects, including monarchs and milkweed beetles, have evolved mechanisms to tolerate the toxins and take advantage of this abundant resource. The genus name, Asclepias, commemorates Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. Several milkweed species have been used medicinally by Native Americans to treat a variety of conditions.
Sheridan’s green hairstreak (Callophrys sheridanii) Sheridan green hairstreak butterflies can be found in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe habitats. Sheridan’s green hairstreak is Wyoming’s state butterfly. It lives in a variety of environments, including sagebrush, chaparral, woodlands, subalpine scree, open hillsides, and on canyon slopes and washes. This butterfly can be found drinking the nectar of many kinds of flowers, but its larvae will only be found munching on species of wild buckwheat. The caterpillars are a light green to pink color and have two rows of white spots running down the back.
Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) The whitebark pine is a slow-growing, long-lived, conifer that grows in high elevation forests. Although it comprises only 5% of Wyoming forests, it is considered a keystone species at high elevations throughout the northern Rocky Mountains because it contributes to critical ecosystem functions, including its abundant seed production, an important food source for wildlife, including grizzly bears, black bears, and the Clark’s nutcracker. In the high elevations of the Absaroka, Teton, and Wind River ranges of Wyoming, its canopies shade snowpack, extending snowmelt and regulate downstream runoff which reduces erosion on steep rocky slopes. Its roots stabilize rocky soils and its high-protein seeds feed several bird and mammal species, including Clark’s nutcracker, many songbirds such as nuthatches, chickadees, pine grosbeaks, and mammals, such as squirrels, red foxes, black bears, and grizzly bears. Whitebark pine forests also provide food, shelter and nest sites for many wildlife species, including deer, elk, grouse, and snowshoe hares. Whitebark pines, like many nut and seed producing plants, have coevolved with seed predators and have several adaptations, such as masting (the intermittent and synchronous production of a large seed crop by a plant) that allow whitebark pines to persist despite heavy seed loss from predation. Whitebark pines depend on nutcrackers almost exclusively for seed dispersal and regeneration. U.S. Forest Service survey data have determined that 51 percent of all standing whitebark pine trees in the United States are now dead as a result of blister rust infestations (a fungal disease caused by a nonnative pathogen) and mountain pine beetle. Half of that mortality is thought to have occurred in the last two decades alone. The Department of the Interior recently listed whitebark pine as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act but declined to designate critical habitat, finding that this would not address the primary stressor, white pine blister rust.
Queen Alexandra’s sulphur butterfly (Colias alexandra) Most butterflies collect nectar from a wide variety of flowers but during the larval (caterpillar) stage, only a few species of plants are acceptable as host plants for the caterpillars to feed on. Butterflies will lay their eggs only on the leaves of acceptable host plants. The male butterfly has bright yellow wings with pale yellow at the bases. The wings are edged with a narrow black border crossed by yellow veins. The females are yellow but can sometimes be white. These butterflies can be found in sagebrush flats, fields, and meadows.
Bumble bee (Bombus spp.) There are more than 3,000 species of bees native to the Western United States. Although many people are not as familiar with native bees as the imported honey bee, native bees provide more than $3 billion dollars in crop-pollination services each year in the United States. More than one-third of our agricultural crops require pollination and as many as 80% of native plants depend on pollination to reproduce. Unlike most native bees, bumble bees are social bees that live in colonies, usually underground. Wyoming is home to at least 23 species of bumble bees. Unlike the honey bee, bumble bees are particularly adapted to survive in cold temperatures, which makes them the primary pollinators of alpine flowers. Because they can survive in cold weather, they are one of the first bees to emerge in spring when they begin new nests. Their large body size allows them to generate heat so they can fly earlier and later in the day than honey bees. Adult female bees visit flowering plants to gather protein-rich pollen to feed their young and to drink the sugary carbohydrate-rich nectar with their tongues. Pollen is essential for the health of the developing young and adult bee. Nectar is the floral reward bees collect when they visit flowers and it provides an important energy source. The majority of bumble bees are generalist foragers, meaning they collect pollen and nectar from a variety of flowers. While foraging for floral resources, bees will move pollen from flower to flower, effectively pollinating those flowers. Because bumble bees’ wings beat 130 times or more per second, they can perform a unique pollination service called “buzz pollination”. Their wings vibrate the flowers until pollen is released. Native bee species in North American are in serious decline. Habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticide use, widespread planting of monocultures (corn and soybean) and pathogens threaten their long-term viability. Declines in the abundance of pollinators could be detrimental to agricultural crops and native plants that require insect pollination, thereafter causing rippling effects for the herbivorous wildlife that depend on insect-pollinated plants.
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Canada goldenrod supports a wide variety of wildlife and is an important component of meadow and prairie ecosystems. Goldenrod’s tiny yellow flowers provide energy-rich nectar and protein-rich pollen for many pollinators and because it blooms from the end of summer into the fall, it complements earlier blooming plants by extending the length of time nectar and pollen sources are available. Many insect species thrive on goldenrod—it’s estimated that goldenrods can support more than 100 different insect species. Butterflies, such as coppers, sulphurs, hairstreaks, and brushfoots, (like Milbert’s tortoiseshell) feed on its nectar and pollen, as do many moths. Native bees gather its protein-rich pollen, fats, minerals, and vitamins. Small insects lay eggs on goldenrods stems that form galls and birds feeds on the protein-rich larvae inside. Goldfinches, grosbeaks, and nuthatches eat goldenrod seeds. Goldenrod survives in a variety of soil types and moisture levels and can spread vigorously through rhizomes underground. Several Native American tribes used goldenrod for a variety of medicinal purposes.
Western coneflower (Rudbeckia occidentalis) Western coneflower grows in meadows and open forests providing nectar, pollen, and seeds for a variety of wildlife species. This striking flowering plant stands 3 to 6 feet tall and has a dark brown “cone” of tiny yellow flowers that bloom in succession from the base up to the top. Many species of native bees and butterflies collect nectar and pollen from these tiny flowers. Later, birds, such as Pine siskins and American goldfinches eat its seeds. Native Americans have used this plant for medicinal purposes to relieve achy muscles and joints.
Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus and Ericameria spp.) Wyoming is home to several species of rabbitbrush, which is common in sagebrush-dominated habitats. Rabbitbrush blooms from late July to October and its golden flowers, leaves, and fruit provide food for mule deer, pronghorn, and jackrabbits during fall and winter. Rabbitbrush also provides cover for birds, including the Greater sage-grouse, small mammals, and rodents. Bees and butterflies collect nectar from its flowers during late summer and early fall. Native Americans have used rabbitbrush to make a yellow dye, a medicinal tea, and chewing gum.
Riparian Habitat The word “riparian” comes from the Latin word “ripa” which means river. A riparian habitat is an ecosystem adjacent to or influenced by a watercourse, including rivers, streams, lakes, creeks and floodplains. In Wyoming, where the climate is dry, riparian habitats provide a range of ecosystem services that are crucial for both the wildlife and human communities that depend on them. Riparian vegetation provides food and shelter for wildlife, including fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals and helps to regulate and reduce water temperatures by shading streams, which is important for the survival of some fish. The watercourses also provide important breeding and feeding areas, including for birds and mammals along their migration routes. Riparian habitats also help improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and sediment and reducing erosion. Overall, riparian habitats are critical components of healthy ecosystems, benefitting both wildlife and human communities.
Sagebrush Steppe Almost half of Wyoming is considered a sagebrush steppe ecosystem. Sagebrush steppe is an ecosystem that is dominated by sagebrush which is highly adapted to surviving in harsh conditions, with deep roots that access water from deep underground sources. Sagebrush habitat is typically found in arid and semi-arid regions and the terrain is mostly flat or rolling hills. It is hot and dry in the summer and cold and windy in the winter. According to the National Wildlife Federation, sagebrush steppe habitats cover 165 million acres in eleven western states. Although sagebrush is typically dominant, a diversity of native shrubs, grasses and flowering plants grow in this habitat as well. Sagebrush habitat provides crucial food and shelter for many large and small mammals, reptiles, birds, and numerous insects. During winter months, sagebrush is a particularly important food source for sage-grouse and grazing mammals because the plant’s leaves stay green and provide some nutritional value. Some studies suggest that during winter, sagebrush makes up 100 percent of sage grouse diets, over 75 percent of antelope diets, and over 50 percent of deer and elk diets in some areas. Sagebrush also provides needed shelter and protection for wildlife, allowing birds, including the Greater sage-grouse, to hide from predators. The physical structure of sagebrush provides important thermal protection during cold and windy conditions, allowing small mammals and birds to shelter under branches and leaves. Sagebrush habitat is in serious decline from human development (including urbanization, agriculture, oil and gas extraction, and mining), wildfires, and invasive, non-native plant species, such as cheat grass. The loss of sagebrush ecosystems impacts wildlife populations living within these ecosystems.
Meadow and Open Forest Meadow ecosystems, populated with grasses, herbaceous flowering plants, and some woody vegetation such as trees and shrubs, support a multitude of wildlife. Meadows provide an important breeding ground for a variety of invertebrates, such as bees, butterflies, spiders, wasps, moths, and flies, a key food source for many birds, amphibians, and reptiles, and food and habitat structure for small mammals that, in turn, provide an important prey base for raptors and larger mammals. Meadows are sponges, absorbing water as snowpack melts and holding that water underground, filtering sediment and dispersing runoff flowing from surrounding slopes and attenuating flood flows. Open forests and woodlands provide a layered plant community, comprised of tree canopies and understory that includes woody shrubs and herbaceous flowering plants, which, like meadows, also provide food, shelter, and habitat for a variety of wildlife. Vegetation is largely influenced by elevation, temperature, soil type, snow accumulation, major disturbances such as fire, wind, and human activities.