In response to a petition and litigation from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act.
The rare wildflower has been at the center of a controversy over a proposed lithium mine that threatens the entire global habitat of Tiehm’s buckwheat. The plant covers just 10 acres of public land in Esmeralda County in western Nevada.
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced a 12-month finding on a petition to list Tiehm’s buckwheat (Eriogonum tiehmii) as an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The USFWS has determined, after a review of the best available scientific and commercial information, that the petitioned action to list Tiehm’s buckwheat is warranted.
The Service will soon publish a proposed rule to list Tiehm’s buckwheat. The agency will open a public comment period when they publish the proposed rule.
On October 7, 2019, the USFWS received a petition from the CBD requesting that Tiehm’s buckwheat be listed as threatened or endangered, that critical habitat be concurrently designated for this species under the Act, and that the petition be considered on an emergency basis. The Fish and Wildlife Service had one year to process the petition and missed that deadline.
In September of 2020, roughly 50 percent of the Tiehm’s buckwheat population was destroyed. The official conclusion is that rodents disturbed the plants and that they present an ongoing threat. The USFWS is uncertain if the species will be able to recover from this damage and loss.
On September 29, 2020, CBD filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada against the USFWS alleging violations under the Administrative Procedure Act. CBD amended the complaint on October 8, 2020, to include a claim under the Endangered Species Act that the Service had missed the 1-year deadline of October 7, 2020, for issuing a 12-month finding for Tiehm’s buckwheat.
On April 21, 2021, the court issued a decision, and, in response to a stipulated request for a revised remedy order, on May 17, 2021, the court amended the decision and ordered the Service to deliver a 12-month finding on Tiehm’s buckwheat to the Federal Register by May 31, 2021.
The USFWS says that further studies and monitoring need to be conducted to determine if management to reduce rodent herbivory is necessary to maintain Tiehm’s buckwheat populations, or if it was just a random catastrophic event that is not likely to occur on a regular basis.
The Rhyolite Ridge Lithium and Boron Mine
The soils on which Tiehm’s buckwheat occurs are high in lithium and boron, making this location of high interest for mineral development. In May 2020, ioneer USA Corporation submitted a plan of operations to BLM for the proposed Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron project. The proposed project is awaiting BLM permitting and approval for mineral development in the areas where the Tiehm’s buckwheat population occurs.
In their analysis, USFWS found that ioneer’s proposed Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron project, if permitted by BLM, would result in the loss of plant habitat for 4 subpopulations, even with the voluntary protection measures included in ioneer’s s project proposal.
The potential impact from the proposed project, combined with the loss resulting from the recent herbivory event, “would reduce the total Tiehm’s buckwheat population by 70 to 88 percent, or from 43,921 individuals to roughly 5,289–8,696 individuals,” according to the USFWS.
The USFWS assessment also concludes that “dust deposition, generated from increased vehicle traffic associated with mine operations, may also negatively affect the overall health and physiological processes of the subpopulations remaining after full implementation of the project.”
ioneer is proposing to salvage all remaining plants in affected populations by transplanting them to another location. However, “the USFWS is uncertain whether the salvage operation will succeed because current research indicates that Tiehm’s buckwheat is a soil specialist, that adjacent unoccupied sites are not suitable for all early life-history stages, and there has been no testing and multiyear monitoring on the feasibility of successfully transplanting the species.”
The assessment concludes that the impact to Tiehm’s buckwheat from mining, salvage operations, or both would be permanent and irreversible under the proposed project because the plants and the land on which they are currently growing, including any existing seed bank in the soil, would be completely removed, and in place of that site there would be a terminal quarry lake.
The USFWS also finds that road development and vehicle traffic associated with the proposed mine, as well as livestock grazing which currently occurs within the Tiehm’s buckwheat population as part of the BLM’s Silver Peak allotment, may create conditions that further favor the establishment of nonnative invasive species within Tiehm’s buckwheat habitat.
“Mineral exploration has already impacted Tiehm’s buckwheat habitat by contributing to the spread of saltlover (Halogeton glomeratus), a nonnative invasive plant species, within all subpopulations of the species. Mineral exploration activities can result in disturbance to natural soil conditions that support Tiehm’s buckwheat and encourage spread of saltlover, which alters the substrate by making the soil more saline and less suitable as habitat for Tiehm’s buckwheat.”
Mineral exploration vehicles also can carry the seeds of nonnative invasive plant species into the area, according to the USFWS finding. Road improvements also allow easier and greater access for recreational vehicles and off-highway vehicles, which have had a demonstrated impact on the plant.
The analysis also found that climate change poses an unfolding threat to the buckwheat, in particular, the availability and timing of precipitation.
Because the buckwheat has not been protected under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has authorized cattle grazing in the buckwheat’s habitat, and the USFWS assessment found that cattle pose a threat to the plant. When the plant is formally listed as Endangered, grazing in the area will likely be terminated.
The impact of the Tiehm’s buckwheat listing as Endangered on the proposed Rhyolite Ridge mine project is yet to be known. ioneer issued a statement regarding the decision to list the buckwheat as endangered. The company contends they can mitigate impacts to the plant and that the USFWS can issue an incidental take permit, so the mine project can proceed.
“FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) is authorized by the ESA (Endangered Species Act) to issue an incidental take permit for activities it finds will not jeopardize continued existence of an ESA-listed species,” ioneer wrote in a press release. “Our protection and conservation efforts are being designed to meet that standard to maximize protections. The listing status does not affect the protections ioneer is planning for Tiehm’s buckwheat. By the time FWS is ready to make a final listing decision, we expect the CCA to be in place and plant conservation measures to be underway.”