DNA evidence suggests rodents destroyed part of an area of an extremely rare desert wildflower that is being considered for protecting endangered species at a controversial mine site in Nevada, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday.
James Calaway, executive director of Australian mining company Ioneer, which plans to dig for lithium about 200 miles southeast of Reno, said half of Tiehm’s buckwheat population was lost in the unprecedented fall attack at the only place known to exist.
“There was a significant percentage of the plants that were damaged,” Calaway told reporters during a conference call on Friday. He said an estimate of up to 50% would be reasonable.
Environmentalists who want to force a nationwide listing of the flower had claimed that the destruction of the plants in August or September was caused by humans. The Center for Biodiversity said Friday that the new evidence reinforces the need to declare buckwheat endangered.
Ioneer opposes inclusion in the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the only way to save the plant is to use its propagation plan to transplant and grow more Tiehms buckwheat at the site of some of the world’s largest undeveloped lithium deposits.
Calaway said an investigation into the Center for Biodiversity’s claim that someone deliberately excavated the flower wasted resources and time that could have been spent preventing the flower from becoming extinct.
“One can only conclude that they did bad science and bad judgment with the malicious intent of exploiting the destruction of nature and using the situation as an excuse to point the fingers and claim that a crime has been committed,” said Calaway.
“Ioneer will continue to work to ensure the protection and reproduction of this species and to provide key minerals such as lithium and boron, which are essential to the adoption of electric vehicles and a sustainable future for the broader United States,” he said .
The species is found on only 4 acres of land stretching over 5 square kilometers in Esmerelda County’s remote Silver Peak Range. The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in July that there was enough evidence of potential threats to the plant to warrant a full 12-month review of its status.
The agency said Friday that environmental DNA analysis by a scientist from Southern Utah University of damaged buckwheat roots, nearby soils and rodent droppings “strongly links mammalian herbivory to widespread damage.”
Buckwheat DNA detected in the scat carried genetic signatures that matched ground squirrels with a confidence level of 96.9% to 99.8%, according to Jacqualine Grant, associate biology professor and director of the Museum of Natural History at Cedar City University, Utah.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said rodent bite wounds on plant roots strongly support the hypothesis that ground squirrels were responsible for the damage. It was said that the current drought conditions likely motivated the rodents to seek moisture by eating the plant’s shallow taproots.
“This is the first time herbivores have been documented on Tiehm’s buckwheat. Its importance depends not only on its frequency and intensity, but also on whether damaged plants can recover and survive,” the service said.
The conservation group claimed in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Las Vegas in September that someone dug up the flowers – up to 17,000, or 40% of the remaining population. However, the lawsuit argued that it was irrelevant what or who was to blame.
“We argue that a population loss of more than 50%, essentially overnight, clearly indicates the need for an emergency department under Endangered Species Act,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, on Friday. “Whether rodents or humans, Tiehm’s buckwheat is clearly in dire need of protection, and we are confident that a judge will agree with this assessment.”
US mulls endangered the mine warfare status of the Nevada plant
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