The Alpine Strategy

Alpine environments are under threat from climate change, possibly warming even faster than other ecosystems. This may be catastrophic to the organisms that call these rugged areas home. Many of the specialized plants and animals that live in the alpine can’t live anywhere else, and are in danger of extinction if these areas continue to warm, including the American Pika (Ochotona princeps), Alpine Primrose (Primula angustifolia), and Arctic Alpine Forget-Me-Not (Eritrichium argenteum). And other alpine plants are actually outcompeted by lower elevation plants, which will start to move higher as the alpine warms. The North American Botanic Garden Strategy for Alpine Plant Conservation was developed by Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in response to the pressures faced by alpine plants, and is based on the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the North American Botanic Garden Strategy for Plant Conservation. It was published in 2020 in collaboration with Denver Botanic Gardens. This is the document that guides our conservation work here at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.

American Pika (Ochotona princeps)

Alpine Primrose (Primula angustifolia)

Arctic Alpine Forget-Me-Not (Eritrichium argenteum)

Yellow flowers on a hillside in the alpine.
A colorful map highlighting North American Alpine Areas

Objective 1:

Understand and document alpine plant diversity.

In order to fully understand the areas we aim to conserve, we have to know where they are. But how do we define what constitutes “alpine”? Alpine is defined as the treeless regions at the uppermost reaches of the mountains, below permanent snow. We use a technology called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to build digital maps using a variety of criteria including climate variables, slope, aspect and more. The transition from montane ecosystems to alpine is understood to be dependent on temperature, so we use the mean growing season temperature of 6.4°C as the cutoff.

Knowing what species occur in the alpine areas of North America is essential to our conservation goals. Over the past several years, staff and interns at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and Denver Botanic Gardens have been combing through resources including local field guides, Plants of the World Online (an online database published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), The Flora of North America, the PLANTS database from the US Department of Agriculture, and more to develop the Alpine Plant List. The challenge has been how to reconcile taxonomic nomenclature, aka how plants are named. Many taxa of plants go through name changes over the years as we continue to develop our understanding of their place on the genetic tree. For example, did you know that the scientific name for Old-Man-of-the-Mountain is currently Hymenoxys grandiflora, but previously, it has gone by Tetraneuris grandiflora, and before that, Rydbergia grandiflora? It is important that we keep track of all the synonyms and former names for each taxa so that when we look at historical records, we know who we’re talking about! The final step was to add in the conservation status for each species, which is obtained from NatureServe, a non-profit organization that is a hub of conservation knowledge and data. The Alpine Plant List for Colorado is available for download here: CO Alpines List

Why do we care about land designation? Natural areas are managed by a variety of people and organizations, and some are much more protected than others from threats to the flora and fauna. We want to find out where alpine areas fall within these protection mosaics to determine if some sites need a higher level of protection. Wilderness areas are places within public lands that are set aside with a higher level of protection to ensure that “America’s wild lands will not disappear”. Colorado has more than 40 wilderness areas, most of which are within the eleven National Forests in our state. We also have four National Parks, four National Monuments, and two National Historic Sites! The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has created criteria to measure the protection level of land designations, with strict nature preserves as the highest, followed by wilderness areas, national parks, and on down the list. We were excited to work with a Regis University graduate student in spring 2022 to complete this target using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Botanists have been surveying the alpine areas of North America for many years, and the specimens they collect help us understand the habitats and ranges of these species. For example, specimens collected during the 1819 Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains are still housed at Harvard University Herbaria (which you already knew if you caught the Colorado Botanist Explorers exhibit summer 2021 at the Gardens!). However, there are lots of places that are under-surveyed, often because they are less accessible. This is one example of a gap in knowledge. There are also many different researchers and institutions conducting alpine studies, and with this target, we work to build an Alpine Network where we can identify other gaps in knowledge that can be rectified to improve our understanding of the alpine ecosystem. Check out the Alpine Strategy Website, and email our Conservation Scientist, Emily Griffoul, at if you're interested in getting involved. Additionally, we invite anyone interested in alpine plants to participate in the Colorado Alpine EcoFlora Project, a community-science botany project powered by iNaturalist.

Sea Pink (Armeria maritima ssp. sibirica), a little pink flower against a backdrop of mountains.

Objective 2:

Conserve alpine plants and their habitats.

Important Plant Areas, or IPAs, are places of exceptional botanical richness or that support an outstanding assemblage of rare and endemic plant species. The goal for this target is to not only identify the most important IPAs, but to also work with land managers to make sure these sites are well protected. Here in Colorado, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program has identified about 200 IPAs rated B1: “Outstanding Biodiversity Significance”, and B2: “Very High Biodiversity Significance”. And there’s around 30 of these highly-ranked sites in the alpine! One IPA that our team has been focusing on is the Mosquito Range, which is home to five fourteeners and is ranked B1 because of the concentration of rare and endemic plants. Sea-Pink (Armeria maritima ssp. sibirica), left, is globally common but state-rare, found in only two counties in CO. Weber’s Saw-Wort (Saussurea weberi), right, is another highly ranked alpine species with fuzzy, grey-purple buds. These are just a few of the unique alpine species found in the Mosquito Range.

In-situ” means “on-site”, so this target refers to conserving plants in their habitats. Once we’ve identified the alpine Important Plant Areas (IPAs), we’ll target areas that are in low-protection IPAs or not included in IPAs at all for increased protection, whether through additional signage, road closures, fencing, or other protective measures. This can only be accomplished through collaboration with land management agencies and other organizations, and we look forward to working with our partners.

Many alpine plants have recalcitrant seeds, meaning their seeds do not survive the drying and freezing processes used for storage in seed banks. This gap in efficacy highlights one of the many reasons it's so important to preserve species in-situ. Alpine Buttercup (Ranunculus adoneus) is found often at the edges of melting snowbanks and is one example of alpine plants that defy traditional seed banking.

This target is similar to the previous one: conserving alpine plants within their habitats, except with an emphasis on our threatened alpine plant species. Threatened in this case means their Global Status Rank is G1: Critically Imperiled — At very high risk of extinction or elimination due to very restricted range, very few populations or occurrences, very steep declines, very severe threats, or other factors; G2: Imperiled — At high risk of extinction or elimination due to restricted range, few populations or occurrences, steep declines, severe threats, or other factors; and G3: Vulnerable — At moderate risk of extinction or elimination due to a fairly restricted range, relatively few populations or occurrences, recent and widespread declines, threats, or other factors. These Global Status Ranks are assigned by NatureServe, a conservation-focused non-profit. Here is an example of one of these threatened alpine plants: Alpine Larkspur (Delphinium alpestre), ranked G2.

Ex-situ means “off site”, so this target aims to conserve alpine plant species through seed-banking, cryopreservation, tissue culture, and in the living collections of botanic gardens. Here at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, we focus our summer field season on collecting seeds of alpine plants. Most of the seeds are sent to the National Lab for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins for long-term banking, while a small portion is grown in the Gardens to be preserved as a living collection. Because there is actually very little research about whether alpine seeds retain their viability after storage, conserving species in living collections is especially important. One of our Alpine Strategy colleagues at Denver Botanic Gardens is Alex Seglias, Seed Conservation Research Associate, who is experimenting with artificial aging of alpine seeds to fill in our understanding of how these species will survive in a seed bank.

This target is similar to the previous one, except that it focuses on threatened species and has an additional recovery/ restoration goal. Remember, threatened species are those whose Global Rank is G1: Critically Imperiled, G2: Imperiled, or G3: Vulnerable. Our goal is to conserve at least 75% of these species in living collections, like a botanic garden, or preferably in a seed bank. Over the past several field seasons, our Conservation Team scouted out populations of and collected seeds from several of these threatened species with our colleagues from Denver Botanic Gardens, including Rothrock’s Easter Daisy (Townsendia rothrockii), which is also endemic and ranked G2G3. All of these collections require special permits and are conducted in accordance with best-practices from leading conservation organizations like the Center for Plant Conservation.

Weber's Saw-Wort (Saussurea weberi), a fuzzy. purple flower.
Weber's Saw-Wort (Saussurea weberi), a fuzzy. purple flower.
Tenaya, 2020 Education Intern, at the Conservation Table in the Gardens.

Objective 3:

Promote awareness of the alpine ecosystem and plant
diversity through education and outreach.

Botanic gardens are uniquely positioned at the intersection of science and the public. Gardens help educate visitors about environmental issues through interpretive signage, events, exhibits, and more, and also happen to be beautiful places to visit. Here at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, our passion is alpine plants and we love getting our visitors equally excited about this special ecosystem!

A small, cushion-forming alpine plant with white petals and a yellow center.

Objective 4:

Build capacity for the conservation of alpine plant
species and associated habitats.

While there are many passionate plant-people out there, the number of educational and professional opportunities for trained botanists has been decreasing over time. But the need for skilled botanists and conservationists hasn’t! One of the ways Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is working to achieve this goal is through our summer internship program, where recent college graduates learn what it’s like to work in conservation, horticulture, and science education, and hopefully get inspired by the amazing alpine ecosystem.

Only by working together across organizations and regions can we succeed. This target sets a goal for botanic gardens to collaborate with other stakeholders to strengthen conservation activities across all scales, including other gardens, universities, horticulturists, and the public. For example, are you collecting seed in the alpine for your research or collections? We want to know! We are setting up an Alpine Strategy Network to link interested people and organizations. Keep an eye out for an announcement about how to join, coming soon!

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