Updated at 12:12 on September 18, 2020 –
Tiehm’s buckwheat is known to exist on 21 acres in the Silver Peak range of Nevada, a distinctly remote area half way between Tonopah, Nevada and Bishop, California. Biologists have identified 6 populations of the rare plant in the region, and according to the proposed plan of operations for the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron mine, two of these populations are located where an open pit mine is planned.
On October 7, 2019, Center For Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act. Concurrently, the CBD petitioned the Nevada Division of Forestry to protect the rare plant under state law. The petitions are under consideration.
September 8, 2020, lab technicians from the University of Nevada Reno (UNR) visited the Tiehm’s buckwheat populations to make general observations and to note seasonal changes.
“We noticed that quite a few of the mature plants near our transect had holes dug around their bases,” reads a report titled Eriogonum tiehmii herbivory observations. “Many plants were completely excavated and were lying beside the holes with their taproots severed. The cuts on the taproots were not straight and clean as if they had been mechanically clipped, but were uneven, with ragged edges and bark missing near the ends, suggesting that they had been gnawed off. Most of these remnants were fairly intact, with the caudex, leaves, and flower stalks appearing un-chewed; however, some larger plants had been completely shredded, and were lying in scattered pieces below the holes. We did not notice any human or large animal tracks immediately surrounding the holes, and the disturbance looked very similar to what we had observed at the transplant sites I’d worked on earlier in the summer, which had primarily been caused by a couple species of small rodents, so we assumed they had been created by some small mammal.”
According to the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), on September 9th, the Nevada Division of Natural Heritage (NDNH) first received the report of Tiehm’s buckwheat damage from the UNR field team. The UNR field team promptly and simultaneously sent their observations to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and US Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
In an email, a DCNR spokesperson said that the BLM and EM Strategies initiated an investigation, with the first field inspection by BLM on September 11th.
The USFWS acknowledged receipt of the UNR field team observation, and then last weekend, Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director, Center for Biological Diversity, and Dr. Naomi Fraga, director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden, visited the Tiehm’s population and noted the destruction of the buckwheat and sent their findings to USFWS on September 15.
According to a statement from USFWS, they are “exploring the issue and have contacted the Nevada Division of Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management, UNR, and Ioneer to get more information and determine next steps.”
In a phone conversation on September 18, President of EM Strategies Richard DeLong said that his company has completed a field assessment of the damage to the Tiehm’s buckwheat. Based on what they found, he has concluded that the destruction was an act of herbivory. DeLong said another species of buckwheat was also affected and that he is conducting a detailed survey of the damage.
What Killed the Buckwheat?
Like most species of wild buckwheat, Tiehm’s buckwheat has adapted to an environment typically difficult for plant life. The small flower exists at roughly 6,000 feet elevation in an unforgiving region that sees a fraction of an inch of precipitation a year.
“This plant is incredibly rare. It grows on 21 acres in the Silver Peak range of Nevada. That is a very small range for a plant,” said Donnelly.
“And it is adapted to very specific soils, a substrate that is actually very high in boron and lithium, which are the target minerals for this mine. Those minerals make the soils very hostile to most plants, and so Tiehm’s buckwheat has developed special adaptations to be able to survive and thrive in those highly mineralized soils.”
And those mineralized soils have drawn the attention of Australian mining company Ioneer and the proposed Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron mine project.
Typically, mines on federal land must develop an Environmental Impact Statement and work though the environmental and public scrutiny mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But because the project uses less than one square mile of land, the company is only required to complete a less rigorous Environmental Assessment, a concern for environmentalists.
Patrick Donnelly said that the destruction appears to have been perpetrated by human vandals, a premeditated, large-scale operation aimed at wiping out one of the rarest plants on Earth.
“It certainly appears that way to us,” Donnelly said over the phone. “We went out there over the weekend, and we discovered dramatic impacts to the buckwheat. Some were destroyed, some were half destroyed, and there were many holes in the ground where buckwheat were removed. So we saw evidence of humans doing this including recent footprints, developing social trails, and scrapes consistent with some sort of trowel being used to dig up these buckwheat.”
The Ally requested comment from Ioneer regarding the destruction of the buckwheat, and in a written statement, a company spokesperson said it is “deeply committed to the long-term viability of Tiehm’s buckwheat in its natural habitat.”
Regarding the recent destruction, Ioneer concurs with UNR field technicians that rodents attacked the plants.
“There is no suggestion nor indication that this attack was perpetrated by humans as falsely stated by Center for Biological Diversity,” the statement reads. “This is a baseless accusation and strikes at the heart of CBD’s credibility. While CBD is making these outlandish claims, our company is working hand in hand with state and federal authorities to get to the bottom of this situation. If CBD was serious about actually protecting the species, they would commit to joining the effort to address the problem, rather than spreading false information that only impedes our efforts.”
As to who would harm the buckwheat, Patrick Donnelly would not guess. As to why a human would attack the buckwheat, Donnelly contends that Ioneer has been perpetuating the narrative that listing the buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act would prevent the mine being permitted. For Donnelly, destruction of the Tiehm’s buckwheat is not a random event.
“This is obviously associated with the intense scrutiny that has been placed upon this plant and this mine. All along, we’ve said, and will tell anybody, we’re not opposed to lithium mining, we’re not even necessarily opposed to the Rhyolite Ridge mine. We oppose extinction. We oppose activities that drive Tiehm’s buckwheat to extinction.
“So listing Tiehm’s buckwheat does not necessarily mean the end of the Rhyolite Ridge mine. There are many deposits up there. Perhaps they could find one to their liking. However, Ioneer has put forward the line of rhetoric that it’s the flower or the mine, that protecting the flower under the Endangered Species Act would spell the end of the mine.
“And so there’s this hostility towards the buckwheat, this idea that the buckwheat is a problem, and we’re sort of talking about atmospherics here, but that stuff matters.”
Dr. Ben Grady is an assistant professor of Biology at Ripon College in Ripon Wisconsin and president of the Eriogonum Society (buckwheat society). Dr. Grady said the Tiehm’s buckwheat is among the rarest he’s encountered. Grady is skeptical of the herbivory theory.
“From what I’ve seen from the pictures, it certainly does not look like any sort of animal disturbance,” Grady said by phone. “Another thing I will say, I’ve been studying eriogonum for a dozen or so years. I’ve been out to hundreds of different populations of various species of buckwheat and I’ve never seen a rodent attack or an herbivore attack or a mammal attack like that. I’ve never seen evidence of that before. So that explanation seems very unlikely.”
No matter how the plants were destroyed, the event is a punch in the solar-plexus for Patrick Donnelly. Donnelly first learned of the rare buckwheat from a BLM whistleblower and has since doggedly defended the plant.
“For this one, it became very, it’s very personal to me this flower. I don’t know if you know the history, but the whistleblower, the BLM whistleblower who informed us about the buckwheat, and then he got in shit with BLM. Then it was kind of up to myself and Naomi Fraga, the botanist I work with, to save the species, and it’s kind of us and the flower versus the world, because who cares about a little wildflower in the middle of nowhere. Well we do.
“So then we fought and spent a year and a half and, you know, we’re still fighting and this is just very personal. So honestly, this was devastating to me. I mean, Naomi and I did the field survey, it was like doing an autopsy on your best friend. It was devastating.
“I do keep it in perspective that this is just a little flower, but it’s the species. It’s part of our biodiversity. There’s an extinction crisis going on globally that threatens our existence on earth, and I’ll be God damned if the extinction crisis is going to come right to our doorstep with Tiehm’s buckwheat.”
Donnelly has called for fencing the area and putting a guard in place. He has also called for the immediate listing of the Tiehm’s buckwheat as an Endangered Species.
For Ben Grady, who or what killed the plants is less important than the fact that they have been killed. Why is a tiny population of buckwheat in a remote section of Nevada important?
“This buckwheat species is something that many of us would probably likely never see or encounter in our lifetimes, unless we made an effort to do it. But the important thing to consider is that this is a very valuable part of the ecosystem, probably more valuable than we even know. And we don’t really want to toy with the idea of losing this or this species going extinct because we have no idea what other parts of the ecosystem that could potentially impact.”
Brian Bahouth is the founding editor of the Ally and a career public media reporter. Support his work.