Conservationists say people uprooted flowers, lithium miner blames rodents

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A photo by the Center for Biodiversity of what the group thinks are man-made holes created by the deliberate uprooting of the rare Tiehm buckwheat.

Reports of the extensive destruction of a rare wildflower from Nevada Conservation groups, scientists and an Australian mining company argue 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 only r of the floweremaining habitat.

A preliminary field Survey of conservation groups appreciated that More than 17,000 Buckwheat plants by Tiehm had been excavated, ac40 percent of the world’s flower population.

“It was very disturbing, very annoying to see this level of damage. Words still fail me, ”said Naomi Fraga, the conservation director of the California Botanic Garden, who conducted the field survey with Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, on Sept. 13.

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

“When I explored the entire habitat and saw how many plants were being dug up, it became clear that this was pretty systematic. This someone wanted to remove most of the plants, ”said Fraga, describing large holes that appeared to have been made by small shovels or spades.

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

In one separate survey a couple of days earlier on September 8th, carried out by the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) with funds from the US Fish and Wildlife ServiceA technician from the survey team also found that around 25 to 50 percent of the systems at four locations were badly damaged.

However, that report concluded that the widespread damage to Tiehm buckwheat was likely due to small rodents based on apparent gnawing at the roots of the plant.

Photo by a Reno field technician at the University of Nevada is a buckwheat root from Tiehm that is being gnawed by a small mammal. (Courtesy photo of Elizabeth Leger, Professor in the UNR’s Department of Biology.)

“I believe this would be very difficult or impossible to do with a trowel or some other small hand-held digging tool that humans should have used to dig up plants. However, it is exactly what I would expect if a small creature had dug through the dirt to reach the plant roots, ”the survey technician wrote in response to the Center for Biodiversity’s report.

Elizabeth Leger, a professor in the UNR’s Department of Biology who leads the research team, said she agreed with her technician’s interpretation even though she was not on site.

“Based on these photos, descriptions and our conversations, I fully agree with your observations and conclusions,” said Ledger, who has carried out propagation and transplantation experiments for Tiehm’s buckwheat in his quest funded 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 hard-working small animals, not people. I think the next step should be to get a small local mammal expert to see what they think. The effects on the plants are very alarming, regardless of the cause.

“… a shameful intention”

James Calaway, Ioneer’s chairman, called the Center for Biodiversity’s conclusions on human participation “propaganda”.

“There’s no evidence to suggest this has anything to do with humans,” Calaway said. “What we think is that these creatures out there were desperate for food and water.”

Donnelly called the suggestion that rodents did the great damage to Tiehm’s buckwheat “absurd”.

“They’re not rodents,” said Donnelly. “The idea that an army of small mammals would descend on this mining site and selectively attack only the endangered species that were at the center of the controversy surrounding a mine (and) would leave shovel-shaped holes in the ground like Swiss cheese and then disappear without a trace absolutely ridiculous. “

Ed Grady, professor at Ripon College, Wisconsin and president of the Eriogonum (Buckwheat) Society, a conservation group dedicated to protecting species, has done the research Tiehm’s buckwheat for over a decade, and expressed skepticism about rodents as a source of harm after viewing photos.

“I’ve been to hundreds of wild buckwheat populations in the west and have never seen evidence of such a rodent attack in any species,” Grady said. “It really seems unlikely to me. I am surprised that it was brought up as an explanation. “

In one letter Fraga and Donnelly, who were sent to the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Nevada Division of Forestry on Tuesday, made a number of recommendations to the agencies, including: fencing off the site, 24-hour security, immediate Stabilization and rehabilitation of the affected plants.

“Our hypothesis that humans likely came out and dug up plants implies a nefarious intention to damage the buckwheat and essentially wipe it out. That concerns and requires immediate action on behalf of the agencies, ”said Frega in an interview on Wednesday.

The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the United States Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service, said they are aware of the situation and are investigating it.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced that state, federal, and consultative wildlife biologists have initiated an investigation into the reported damage and will assess whether immediate action should be taken at the end of the investigation.

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

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

The wildflower is currently being considered by federal and state agencies for additional protection.

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 forestry department announced that the agency would review extended protection for Tiehm’s buckwheat. The department held a series of workshops to gather information on the possible inclusion of the species on the list of fully protected species of native flora in Nevada and expects, according to the agency, to announce his decision within the next 30 days.

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

‘Do not collect’

dead or alive?Poster Ioneer placed in a shop in Dyer. The company also posted the poster on its lithium mining project’s website.

In the letter to government agencies and Ioneer, Donnelly also criticized Ioneer for posting a “missing” poster in Dyer, Nevada, offering a $ 5,000 reward to anyone who finds one new population of Tiehm’s buckwheat. “When seen, write down the location, take a picture” and call Ioneer, the poster reads. “Don’t collect.”

“The concern is that someone will see this reward opportunity and think they can remove plants from their natural habitat, start a new population, and receive $ 5,000. That’s not a trivial sum for most people, especially in times of economic hardship, ”said Fraga. “It’s very irresponsible.”

Calaway, Ioneer’s chief executive officer, said the poster was not intended to promote the destruction of the facility, but rather to help identify other clusters of Tiehms buckwheat to be included in the company’s maintenance and protection plan for the facility .

“We thought it would be a good idea for the locals who live in the desert and are out there all the time,” Calaway said, adding that they don’t have a single reward to hand out just yet.