Rare Nevada wildflowers were wiped out by squirrels, U.S. agencies say

Environmental group disputes finding, says plant still needs protection

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Center for Biological Diversity

This image shows where some Tiehm’s buckwheat plants were removed in Esmeralda County in what the Center for Biological Diversity terms a large-scale destruction or collection incident.

Fri, Dec 4, 2020 (6:45 p.m.)

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This June 1, 2019, photo shows the rare desert wildflower Tiehm's buckwheat in the Silver Peak Range about 120 miles southeast of Reno, the only place it is known to exist in the world.

The September destruction of thousands of Tiehm’s buckwheat plants, an incredibly rare desert wildflower that lives only in a small portion of Esmeralda County, has been “strongly linked” to ground squirrel damage.

That finding, produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, contradicts accusations by the Center for Biological Diversity that the damage was done by humans. 

The Center for Biological Diversity first discovered the damage in September on a “routine visit,” finding that 40% of the plant’s population had been destroyed. Almost immediately, the group and Ioneer Corp. — an Australian mining company interested in developing an open-pit lithium mine in the flower’s habitat — had a public disagreement about the source of the damage.

The recent findings that rodents were driven to eat the plant’s taproots to seek out moisture due to drought conditions were a vindication for the mining company, Ioneer Executive Chairman James Calaway said.

“(The Center for Biological Diversity) should have focused on working to determine the real cause of the incident and helping develop credible plans to properly manage future threats,” Calaway said.

He accused the center of peddling bad science and bad judgment with “malicious intent” to assert a crime had been perpetrated.

Calaway said that Ioneer is dedicated to protecting Tiehm’s buckwheat and said the company is working with the “appropriate agencies on establishing effective measures to mitigate this latest threat from natural causes.”

But the Center for Biological Diversity said the findings aren’t conclusive.

Naomi Fraga, the director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden, said she would be “cautious” about interpreting the result of the study as definitive proof rodents caused the entirety of the damage. She’s worked closely with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This report appears to provide evidence that buckwheat plant parts have at some point been eaten by white-tailed antelope ground squirrels at Rhyolite Ridge,” Fraga said in a statement. “But I don’t see how this line of evidence can substantiate that the entirety of the wide-scale damage was caused by small mammals.”

The study looked at DNA found in the environment from damaged plants and rodent feces. Five samples contained DNA from the Cervid family, which contains Nevada species like the pronghorn and mule deer, and two contained human DNA.

“Basically, they’ve proven that one time, at some point, some ground squirrel ate a buckwheat,” said Patrick Donnelly, the director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “What they did not prove was that literally hundreds of ground squirrels simultaneously decided to switch their dietary preferences to Tiehm’s buckwheat and wipe half the species off the face of the Earth in a couple of weeks.”

The center is currently suing to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat under the emergency provisions of the Endangered Species act. Protecting the plant is the most important goal going forward, Donnelly said.

“It does not matter if it was a squirrel or a kangaroo or aliens or James Calaway himself,” Donnelly said. “The plant needs to be listed under the endangered species act. It should have been listed when we discovered this damage.”

He criticized government agencies for being more concerned about discrediting the center’s allegations of human-caused damage and pushing back against its lawsuit rather than protecting the plant.

If the plant is added to the list, it would bar Ioneer from developing a mine at the site.

“They’ve spent far more effort doing the mining company’s PR than they’ve done protecting the buckwheat,” Donnelly said.

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