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Students And Faculty Want UMSL To Restore Native Grasses, Preserve Wildlife Habitat

Native grasses and wildflowers near Bugg Pond were replaced by turf.
Webster Heffern
UMSL students and faculty members planted native grasses and wildflowers at Bugg Lake in 2017 to boost ecological diversity.

A group of students and faculty members at the University of Missouri-St. Louis is asking the university to replant native grasses and wildflowers planted near Bugg Lake in 2017.

Over the summer, workers mowed down the plants and replaced them with turf. That upset many on campus because students and faculty had planted the grasses in the garden, designed by master gardener Donna Nonnenkamp.

Stephanie McDonald, a senior who is majoring in biology, took notice of the garden when she transferred to UMSL in 2020. This year, she started a petition on Change.org that calls for UMSL to restore the garden. She did so after Harris World Ecology Center Director Patricia Parker told students that workers destroyed the garden without consulting those who had worked on it.

“I thought that was unfair,” McDonald said.

She and other students mobilized to organize their thoughts and draft a petition, which has received more than 130 signatures.

A map showing Bugg Lake on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

For Parker, a biology professor, the first indication that the garden was being removed was a cloud of dust around Bugg Lake outside her office window.

“By the time I heard about it, it was done. I witnessed the rising dirt from the demolition around the pond,” Parker said.

Biology professor Aimee Dunlap said the wildlife garden blooms from early spring until November to attract pollinators and birds and help mitigate the effects of an ongoing “biodiversity crisis.”

After undergraduate students presented university officials with pictures of what plants would look like at different parts of the year, the UMSL Sustainability Office gave the project the green light. In spring 2017, students, faculty and volunteers worked to dig up the grass and install native plants, including milkweeds, coneflowers, prickly pears and native grasses, which provide a habitat for diverse life.

The garden boosted ecological diversity near the lake, Dunlap said. During migration, monarch butterflies feasted on milkweeds. Students spotted five different species of bumblebees attracted to the wildlife oasis.

“My lab caught praying mantises and jumping spiders, and it was really cool to walk through and see everything that had been attracted,” she said.

A spicebush swallowtail rests on a milkweed flower near Bugg Pond.
Aimee Dunlap
A spicebush swallowtail rests on a milkweed flower near Bugg Lake.

McDonald said the garden helped students studying ecology or biology because they could step outside and observe pollinators and other wildlife in a natural habitat.

“It’s like a firsthand experience, and we’ve just taken that away,” she said.

Besides seeing the garden restored, McDonald wants to sit down and talk with those who made the decision to remove the plants.

In a statement, Bob Samples, chief of staff for Chancellor Kristin Sobolik, did not address what happened to the garden but wrote that UMSL is “working to invest more time and effort to maintain and enhance our interior and exterior spaces — making the campus more attractive and inviting and inspiring.”

Parker also hopes to see the native plants brought back, and noted that diverse life will flock to suitable habitats automatically.

“We put the plants in. We didn’t put the bees in, we didn't import the butterflies, we didn’t import the hummingbirds,” she said. “They’re out there and they will find it.” However, she warned about the broader implications of destroying natural habitats. “If enough people do what our campus just did, then we’re driving the nails in the coffins of these species that depend on that kind of natural habitat for their survival.”

Follow Niara on Twitter: @niaraalexandra