(Reuters) – Widespread damage to rare wildflowers in Nevada in September was caused by ground squirrels, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday. They were not related to human activity in the area, which includes a lithium mine operated by Australia’s Pioneer Ltd. is developed.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a nonprofit group, said last month conservationists found that “someone dug up and destroyed more than 17,000 buckwheat plants from Tiehm,” a rare Nevada wildflower used by the fish and wildlife service at that time Summer may justify protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“This appears to have been a deliberate, somewhat organized, major operation aimed at wiping out one of the rarest plants on earth,” the CBD said at the time.
The CBD sued U.S. regulators last year for granting pioneer permits to explore lithium in northern Nevada, arguing that the region in which the company operates is the primary habitat for the flower. The environmental group donned this suit last January after ioneer agreed to take additional measures to protect the facility.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that an environmental DNA analysis carried out on damaged roots of Tiehm’s buckwheat, nearby soils and rodent droppings strongly suggests ground squirrels to be responsible for the recent damage.
The current drought conditions likely motivated rodents to seek moisture by ingesting the shallow taproots of mature buckwheat plants, the report said.
The CBD said the report wouldn’t deter its ongoing efforts to add the flower to the list of protected species under the Environmental Species Act. A judge is expected to rule this month at the request of the CBD.
Adding the flower to the list would prohibit ioneer from mining lithium at that location, even though the company would still have access to nearby land.
“Whether it was rodents or humans, Tiehm’s buckwheat is clearly in dire need of protection, and we are confident a judge will agree with that assessment,” said Patrick Donnelly, state director for the CBD in Nevada.
Ioneer said the company will continue to work “to ensure the protection and reproduction of this species”.
Reporting by Arathy S Nair in Bengaluru, additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Adaptation by Sriraj Kalluvila and Rosalba O’Brien