RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For conservationists and researchers, it's getting harder and harder to find habitats that haven't been changed by man. One place they're now looking: Cemeteries, which can be a refuge for some of America's most endangered native plants and insects.
As St. Louis Public Radio's Adam Allington reports, graveyards can provide data to help study issues like climate change and species diversity.
ADAM ALLINGTON: When Lewis and Clark left St. Louis to explore the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, their journals describe the sight of wave upon wave of rolling prairie grass. One species in particular, called big blue stem, reached well above their heads and stretched as far as the eye could see.
Ms. ERIN SHANK (Urban Wildlife Biologist, Missouri Department of Conservation): It's a big grass that can grow 6 feet easily. And you would have seen it all the way from the Great Plains even into western Ohio, from Manitoba down to Texas.
ALLINGTON: Erin Shank is an urban wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. We're walking through Calvary Cemetery in north St. Louis, not far from the graves of famous locals like Dred Scott and Tennessee Williams. The tombstones eventually give way to tall golden stalks of dried grass.
Ms. SHANK: Essentially, the archdiocese of St. Louis just hasn't gotten around to burying anybody here, so this has been pretty untouched.
ALLINGTON: These 13 acres, preserved by chance over 150 years ago, represent the last patch of native tall grass prairie in the St. Louis region. Shank says habitat remnants, like cemeteries, are becoming increasingly critical as sources of native plants and seeds.
Ms. SHANK: The future of conservation is in fragments, unfortunately. And we're working with private landowners and public land to try to best manage what we have left, down to small pieces that we just happen to be lucky, honestly, through history to still have intact.
ALLINGTON: Despite cases like the Calvary prairie, many conservationists regard cemeteries as little more than sacred lawns, without the same benefits as wild habitat. But in the Midwest, where agriculture has spread to nearly every corner, finding those natural areas is a challenge.
Ms. LAURA BURKLE (Ecologist, Washington University): We spend a lot of time driving around, looking for these remnant forested areas and there are not a lot of them left. It's really, really rare.
ALLINGTON: Laura Burkle is an ecologist at Washington University. Together with her research partner Tiffany Knight, they've come to Moore Cemetery, a rural graveyard outside of Carlinville, Illinois. A tiny island amidst a sea of corn and soybeans, Moore is one of the few places where native plants and ground-nesting bees still thrive.
Burkle points to a patch of bluebells and small white lilies. Just then, she notices a low-flying bumblebee and charges with her insect net.
Ms. TIFFANY KNIGHT (Washington University): Get him.
Ms. BURKLE: I got him.
Ms. KNIGHT: Do you need a vial?
Ms. BURKLE: I got a vial. I think it's a queen. She's not psyched about being in here. All we want to do right now is identify her, and then we'll let her go.
ALLINGTON: Tiffany Knight says the big question they're trying to answer is whether the critical relationship between plants and bees is getting thrown off.
Ms. KNIGHT: One of the things that we know is happening with climate change is that plants and pollinators are active earlier because it's warmer. The problem is that they might go out of sync meaning the pollinators might be active earlier than the plants are flowering.
ALLINGTON: After recording the bumblebee's information, Knight releases her from the vial and moves on to a new spot. Even though she's here to study flowers and bees, she appreciates the fact that cemeteries connect both the history of humans�and�the landscape into one complete story.
For NPR News, I'm Adam Allington in St. Louis.
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