USFWS confirms it will list flower on proposed lithium mine site as endangered

By: - October 2, 2021 11:00 am

Tiehm’s buckwheat. (Center for Biological Diversity photo)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said on Friday it’s planning to list a rare Nevada wildflower as an endangered species, dealing a blow to a planned lithium mine in the flower’s only known habitat.

After determining the Tiehm’s buckwheat could face extinction throughout all of its range without federal protections, the agency submitted a proposed rule to list the species as endangered.

The proposal is now open to a 60-day public comment period and could be finalized within a year.

Primary threats to the species include predation by animals eating the plants, mining, climate change, off-highway vehicles and grazing, the agency said. 

“We find that Tiehm’s buckwheat is in danger of extinction throughout all of its range due to the severity and immediacy of threats currently impacting the species now and those which are likely to occur in the near term,” the agency said.

Thousands of Tiehm’s buckwheat – which are found nowhere else in the world – were destroyed last summer by ground squirrels gnawing on the roots for water, according to the agency. That incident, reduced the flower’s population by at least 50% and as much as 64%.

The agency previously said the wide-scale destruction of the buckwheat along with the potential impact from the proposed lithium mine 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.”

The endangered species designation does not immediately block the mining project, but could impede permitting and financing efforts. 

Australia-based ioneer, which is leading the proposed open-pit lithium mine on the plant’s habitat, said the proposed rule to list Tiehm’s buckwheat as endangered was expected and does not feel the agency’s decision is a major obstacle.

“From the beginning, the Rhyolite Ridge operation has been designed and planned to incorporate the conservation and protection of Tiehm’s buckwheat” ioneer Managing Director Bernard Rowe said in a statement. “We have always firmly understood the need to protect this species, irrespective of its listing status, given its small population and limited geographic spread along the edges of the area we operate in.”

The company has argued that its lithium operations can coexist with Tiehm’s buckwheat due to it’s salvage efforts, including a plan to transplant live plants to another location.

Federal wildlife officials, however, say the company’s plans to transplant the flowers would likely fail because Tiehm’s buckwheat requires lithium rich soil found near large deposits like Rhyolite Ridge.

The Center For Biological Diversity, which originally submitted the petition for the flower’s listing, said the United States should make preserving biodiversity a priority. In April, the Center also successfully sued the Wildlife Service for an expedited decision on whether to list the flower or not.

“This is a banner day for native plant conservation,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center. “This vulnerable little wildflower has captured the imagination of people around the world. Extinction is a political choice, and the Biden administration made the right call to prevent this special plant from disappearing forever.”

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Jeniffer Solis
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.