A rare desert wildflower known to only grow in Nevada should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday.
The agency determined the Tiehm’s buckwheat warrants federal protection and by September 30, 2021 will submit a proposed rule to list the species.
The decision comes after a conservation group sued the agency in 2020 for federal protection determination after discovering wide-scale destruction to the plants that destroyed more than 50 percent of the total global population. In April, a federal judge ordered the agency to make a determination by May 31 after ruling that the plant’s recent destruction qualifies as an “emergency posing a significant risk to the well-being” of Tiehm’s buckwheat.
Until recently, the species did not face significant threats due to its remote location. However, climate change, rodent damage, and an increased interest in mining around the state, particularly for lithium, has put the plant at risk, said the agency. The wildflower grows in soil that is high in lithium and boron, which makes its habitat of high interest for mineral development.
Growing demand for electric cars and clean energy technology has led to mining companies looking to increase lithium production in Nevada, home to the only large-scale lithium mine in the U.S., due to the high rates of lithium in the soil.
An Australian mining company, ioneer Ltd, has proposed an open-pit lithium mine in Esmeralda County on the plant’s only known habitat, but federal protection for the rare flower could put those plans at risk.
The company argues its lithium operations can coexist with Tiehm’s buckwheat due to salvage efforts undertaken by the company, including a plan to transplant live plants to another location.
However, the agency said they are “uncertain whether the salvage operation will succeed because current research indicates that Tiehm’s buckwheat is a soil specialist, that adjacent unoccupied sites are not suitable for all early life-history stages, and there has been no testing and multiyear monitoring on the feasibility of successfully transplanting the species.”
The agency concluded that the potential impact from the proposed lithium mine, combined with the recent wide-scale loss from rodent damage, would “reduce the total Tiehm’s buckwheat population by 70 to 88 percent, or from 43,921 plants to roughly 5,289–8,696 plants.”
Cattle grazing, climate change, and invasive plant species could also pose a risk to the wildflower, said the agency.
“We’re thrilled that the Biden administration has proposed Endangered Species Act protection for this delicate little flower,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, the conservation group leading the litigation for the protection of the wildflower. “Tiehm’s buckwheat shouldn’t be wiped off the face of the Earth by an open-pit mine. The Service stepping in to save this plant from extinction is the right call.”
In a statement, ioneer managing director Bernard Rowe said the mining company fully supports protection of the wildflower and is “committed to assisting in the research, development and roll out of required protection measures to ensure Tiehm’s buckwheat’s conservation.”
The company “remains committed to the protection of Tiehm’s buckwheat irrespective of its listing status, and will implement the highest standard of measures to ensure that the species is protected. We remain confident that the science strongly supports the coexistence of our vital lithium operation and Tiehm’s buckwheat,” Rowe said.