Naturalists in southeastern Manitoba are fuming after a patch of the endangered western prairie fringed orchid was mowed down this week.

The orchid, which grows nowhere else in Canada, is protected under federal and provincial endangered species acts. It's illegal to disturb the plant's habitat.

So Stuartburn resident Anton Wagenhofer was shocked to find a stand of the flowers had been mowed down by a highway maintenance crew on Monday.

Wagenhofer came across the chewed-up remains of the plants strewn along a ditch just a day after hewas admiring the flowers, which bloom for only a few days each summer.

Wagenhofer said the flowers were in full bloom.

Western prairie fringed orchids are large, showy plants, withdozens of whiteblossoms, each with a distinctive fringed lip, on a 75-centimetre spike.

"There would in all possibility have been more than 100 plants in blossom that were mowed down," Wagenhofer said.

Charges not being considered

Manitoba Conservation spokesman Jim Duncan says the maintenance crew, hired by Manitoba Highway, cut the orchids in error.

"I wouldn't call it a catastrophe.I would call it an unfortunate incident," he said.

"Accidents happen. The good news is that the orchids weren't permanently damaged. They were cut. The plants should rebound and flower in other years."

The penalties for disturbing the flower can include a fine of $5,000 or six months in jail, but Duncan said charges are not being considered in this case.

Publicity campaign planned

Duncan said highway officials have assured him no more plants will be mowed while in bloom.

In Canada,theorchid is found only in a 50-kilometre area around Vita and Stuartburn. More than half of the estimated 7,000 orchids growing in Manitoba are foundin roadside ditches, provincial officials say.

Wagenhofer was appalled to learn the highway crew didn't know about the rare and delicate nature of the plant.

"I wouldn't want to see anybody punished for their ignorance," he said. "On the other hand, I do think there should be an effort made to inform people [so] that from now on, ignorance will no longer be an excuse."

Duncan said he hoped the incident would help educate more Manitobans about the importance of protecting the plant.

Officials said the province is planning a publicity campaign about the orchid in the next few months.