Conservationists say humans uprooted flowers, lithium miner blames rodents

A Center for Biological Diversity photo of what the group believes are human-dug holes left behind from deliberately uprooting the rare Tiehm's buckwheat.

Reports documenting wide-scale destruction of a rare Nevada wildflower have conservation groups, scientists, and an Australian mining company at odds over whether the damage was caused by humans or rodents.

The flower in question is Tiehm’s buckwheat, a plant species threatened by the development of a potential lithium mine in Esmeralda County on the flower’s only remaining habitat.

A preliminary field survey by conservation groups estimated that more than 17,000 Tiehm’s buckwheat plants had been dug up, accounting for 40 percent of the flowers global population. 

“It was very disturbing, very upsetting to see that scale of damage. I am still at a loss for words,” said Naomi Fraga, the director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden, who conducted the field survey on Sept.13 along with Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Footprints, new trails and the scale of the damage led Fraga and Donnelly to believe that humans had dug up the plants.

“Once I explored the entire habitat and realized the extent of how many plants were dug up, it became clear that this was quite systematic. That someone intended to remove the majority of the plants,” Fraga said, describing large holes that appeared to be created by small shovels or spades.

“This appears to have been a premeditated, somewhat organized, large-scale operation aimed at wiping out one of the rarest plants on earth,” Donnelly said.

In a separate survey a few days earlier on Sept. 8, conducted by University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) with funding provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a technician for the survey team similarly observed that around 25 to 50 percent of the plants had been severely damaged at four sites. 

That report, however, came to the conclusion that the large scale damage to the Tiehm’s buckwheat had likely been the work of small rodents, based on apparent gnawing on the plant’s roots.

gnawed
Photo of what a University of Nevada, Reno field technician believes is a Tiehm’s Buckwheat root gnawed on by a small mammal. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Leger, professor at the Department of Biology at UNR.)

“I believe this would be very difficult or impossible to do with a trowel or other small, handheld digging implement humans would have had to use to excavate plants. However, it is exactly what I would expect to see if a small creature had dug through the dirt to reach the plant roots,” the technician on the survey wrote in response to the report by the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Elizabeth Leger, a professor in the Department of Biology at UNR who leads the research team, said that while she was not at the site she agrees with her technician’s interpretation. 

“Based on these photos, descriptions, and our conversations, I fully agree with her observations and conclusions,” said Ledger, who has conducted propagation and transplant trials for Tiehm’s buckwheat in an effort financed by Ioneer, an Australian lithium mining company hoping to develop a mine in the area. “When I look at these photos, I see evidence of industrious small animals, not humans. I believe the next step should be to get a small mammal expert out to the site to see what they think. The impact on the plants is very alarming, no matter what the cause.

‘…some sort of nefarious intent’

James Calaway, the executive chairman of the board of directors at Ioneer, called conclusions from the Center for Biological Diversity about human involvement “propaganda.”

“There is no evidence that would suggest in any way that this had anything to do with any humans,” Calaway said. “What we think happened is these creatures out there were desperately searching for food and water.”

Donnelly called the suggestion that rodents caused the extensive damage to Tiehm’s buckwheat “preposterous.”

 “It’s not rodents,” Donnelly said. “The idea that an army of small mammals would descend on this mining site and selectively target only the endangered species that have been at the center of the controversy over a mine (and) would leave shovel shaped holes in the ground like Swiss cheese and then disappear without a trace is utterly ludicrous.”

Ed Grady, a professor at Ripon College in Wisconsin and the president of the Eriogonum (buckwheat) Society, a conservation group dedicated to the protection of the species, has researched Tiehm’s buckwheat for over a decade. He also expressed skepticism of rodents as a source of the damage after viewing photos. 

“I’ve been to hundreds of populations of wild buckwheat across the west and I’ve never seen evidence of a rodent attack like that one on any species,” Grady said. “It seems really unlikely to me. I’m surprised that it was put forward as an explanation.”

In a letter sent on Tuesday to the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nevada Division of Forestry, Fraga and Donnelly made a series of recommendations to the agencies including: fencing the site, 24-hour security, immediate stabilization and rehabilitation of affected plants.

“Our hypothesis being that humans likely came out and dug plants up implies some sort of nefarious intent to damage the buckwheat and cause its extinction basically. That’s concerning and demands immediate action on behalf of the agencies,” Frega said in an interview Wednesday.

All three agencies said they were aware of the situation and were looking into it.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said state, federal, and consulting wildlife biologists have started an investigation on the reported damage and will assess if immediate action needs to be taken at the conclusion of the investigation.

“As of yet, we are not aware of any evidence that this damage was caused by direct human activity,” said the spokeswoman in an email.

Similarly, Marc Jackson, field supervisor for the Reno Fish and Wildlife Office, said his agency had contacted Ioneer, the Nevada Division of Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management and UNR for more information.  

The wildflower is also currently being considered for additional protections by both federal and state agencies.

In July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services announced that based on an initial review the plant may warrant protection as an endangered and threatened plant. 

In March, the Nevada Division of Forestry announced  the agency would review expanded protection for Tiehm’s buckwheat. The division has held a series of workshops to gather input on possibly adding the species to Nevada’s List of Fully Protected Species of Native Flora and anticipates announcing its decision within the next 30 days, according to the agency. 

“As part of our mission, we remain committed to protecting Nevada’s precious native species and sustaining the state’s diverse biological heritage,” wrote a spokeswoman for the division in an email.

‘Do not collect’

dead or alive?
Poster Ioneer placed in a store in Dyer. the company also put the poster on its lithium mining project website.

In the letter to government agencies and Ioneer, Donnelly also criticized Ioneer for putting up a “missing” poster in Dyer, Nevada, offering a $5,000 reward for anyone who locates a new population of Tiehm’s buckwheat. “If seen, note location, take photo” and call Ioneer, the poster reads. “Do not collect.”

“The concern is that someone would see that reward opportunity and think they could remove plants from their native habitat and grow a new population and be awarded $5,000. That’s not a trivial amount for most people especially during this time of economic hardship,” Fraga said. “It’s highly irresponsible.”

Calaway, Ioneer’s board chairman, said the poster wasn’t intended to encourage the plant’s destruction, but rather to help identify other clusters of Tiehm’s buckwheat to include in the company’s conservation and protection plan for the plant.

“We thought it’d be a good idea for the locals who live in the desert and are out there all the time,” Calaway said, adding that they have yet to give out a single reward.

 

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.