Zoos Helping Local Flora and Fauna Conservation

Posted March 7, 2023 by Lily Maynard

Accredited Zoos around the country are doing important work for local flora and fauna conservation, including the Cincinnati Zoo! Here are some highlights of the exceptional local plant and insect conservation efforts at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden! (Read the entire report here!)

American Burying Beetle

The American burying beetle (ABB) was once found everywhere in the eastern United States but because of a handful of issues (habitat destruction, increased scavenger populations, etc.) they are now only found in a few counties in a few states like in the eastern Sandhills of Nebraska! This project involves breeding, reintroductions, and presence/absence surveys in Ohio of the ABB. The recovery of this state’s endangered and federally threatened species relies upon collaboration between multiple organizations and government agencies. 

Each summer, founder beetles are collected by Cincinnati Zoo World of the Insect Keepers from the sandhills of Nebraska with the help of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the USFWS, and The Wilds and brought to Ohio. Those beetles and their offspring are bred at the Cincinnati Zoo and The Wilds to produce a large release population for the following summer. We’re excited to report that 1,833 ABBs have been released into the wild from the Cincinnati Zoo population since 2013. Overall, the ABB species was down-listed federally so progress is being made, though it is still listed as endangered in the state of Ohio. 

Bowyer Farm 

The Cincinnati Zoo’s Bowyer Farm is over 600 acres and supports a variety of projects including a wetland reclamation started in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture. Initial habitat restoration focused on rebuilding a vernal pool from altered soy and corn fields to create habitat for amphibians, and over time additional habitat features have been restored for other wildlife species. Bowyer Farm also grows native plants for the annual Native Plant Sales and planting in Cincinnati Zoo pollinator gardens, as well as browse growth for zoo animals and animal enrichment. Bowyer is also the location for an upcoming solar panel installation (size = 25 MW) that will help the Cincinnati Zoo move from net-zero to net-positive energy usage.

So far, 205 bird species, 13 amphibian species, and 7 reptile species have been observed onsite at Bowyer Farm, demonstrating the viable habitat welcoming diverse species from the prior corn and soy farm fields. Additionally, the Zoo’s horticulture team has grown over 300 native plant species and sold 12,522 individual native plants, documenting the extent of the increased supply of native plants provided by the Bowyer Farm!

CREW Plants 

The Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) is dedicated to Saving Species with Science®. CREW’s Plant Lab projects focus on producing plants for habitat restorations through in situ reintroduction and preserving plants in long-term ex situ storage in liquid nitrogen in CREW’s Frozen Garden so they can be used in future restorations. Scientists in the Plant Research Division at CREW form critical partnerships with other leading conservationists and governmental and non-governmental organizations to achieve CREW’s mission to Save Species with Science®. CREW plant scientists are actively involved in local conservation for endangered species.

In partnership with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, other federal and state government agencies, parks, and nonprofit organizations, the CREW team propagates endangered plants for reintroduction to restore the biodiversity of landscapes. For example, plants propagated at CREW for a federally endangered sandwort in the project scope were sent back to managers with the Daniel Boone National Forest for use in restoration, which has contributed to the recovery and delisting of the species in 2022. A total of nine species have been propagated in the CREW Plant Lab for restoration, and over 1400 individual plants have been reintroduced by being planted in the wild. 

Plant for Pollinators 

Plant for Pollinators (P4P) is a public engagement and action campaign to increase pollinator habitat in the Greater Cincinnati region and beyond by

  1. connecting both new and experienced gardeners to resources regarding planting for pollinators 
  2. encouraging people to register their new or existing pollinator gardens through the P4P challenge so that we can track the expansion of pollinator habitat across the region and country.

The P4P program is a cross-departmental partnership with input from our Administrative, Horticulture, Insect, Conservation, and Education departments. P4P is also cross-promoted with the Zoo’s annual native plant sales, which seek to raise money for the Zoo while also increasing native plant habitat across the tri-state region. P4P is sponsored by Simple Truth and supported by over 20 local partners, whose funds enable the creation of promotional materials and the overall sustainability of the program. 

So far, over 2,979 individuals’ gardens were registered in the challenge, over 70 pollinator kits were sold for individuals’ gardens, and over 3,000 people were reached in pollinator-focused horticulture talks. 

Rockdale Urban Learning Garden 

Before it was transformed into a biodiverse working garden and living classroom, the Urban Learning Garden (ULG) at Rockdale Academy was an unused, one-acre field of turfgrass. As part of the 2021 Community Makeover led by Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the Reds Community Fund, P&G, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, this homogenous landscape was transformed into a one-of-a-kind learning space.

The garden now hosts over 10,000 plants, made up of perennials, shrubs, fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs, as well as a greenhouse powered by solar panels that were installed on the elementary school’s roof. The zoo has fulltime horticulturalists maintaining the garden with the help of volunteers, and occasionally students, who also use the space for community and after-school events.

The garden is a unique example of long-term socioecological investment in that the zoo has committed to, through labor and educational programming, ensure that the garden does not fall into a familiar pattern of beautification projects that later suffer from neglect. While the community engagement components of the garden are still being explored, its installation and subsequent year of care have undoubtedly changed the environmental makeup of the urban neighborhood of Avondale by attracting more wildlife, especially a wide array of pollinators. Over 350 Pre-Kindergarten to 6th grade students and their families in the community and 60 staff from Rockdale Academy were reached with events in the Urban Learning Garden.