LAS VEGAS— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposed rule today to list the rare wildflower Tiehm’s buckwheat as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The proposed rule comes as a result of litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity, which has worked for three years to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat from an open pit lithium mine.
The Rhyolite Ridge Mine, a project proposed by Ioneer, an Australian mining company, would destroy up to 90% of the global population of Tiehm’s buckwheat. That threat prompted more than 100 scientists and 15 conservation groups to send a letter urging President Biden to protect the plant.
“I’m thrilled that Tiehm’s buckwheat is on the path to protection,” said Naomi Fraga, a botanist who helped organize the scientists’ letter. “Ioneer has already caused significant damage to the buckwheat’s habitat. We can only hope that this will put an end to the company’s harmful activities and kickstart the buckwheat’s recovery process.”
Tiehm’s buckwheat is found only in the Silver Peak Range of Esmeralda County, Nevada, and grows on just 10 acres of lithium-rich soils. A recent range-wide census by the California Botanic Garden revealed there are just 15,757 plants in the global population of Tiehm’s buckwheat — a 64% decline from previous surveys.
After mysterious damage in summer 2020 severely harmed the buckwheat, it has become one of the most high-profile plant conservation causes in the world, appearing in media outlets from London to New York to Sydney.
“This is a banner day for native plant conservation,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center. “This vulnerable little wildflower has captured the imagination of people around the world. Extinction is a political choice, and the Biden administration made the right call to prevent this special plant from disappearing forever.”
Tiehm’s buckwheat (Eriogonum tiehmii) is a rare species of wildflower in the buckwheat family. Over millennia the plant adapted to soils rich in lithium and boron in the Silver Peak Range of Esmeralda County, Nevada. It was identified as a possibly distinct taxon by Jerry Tiehm in 1983 and described as a species by James Reveal in 1985.
In a 1995 status review, the Nevada Natural Heritage Program recognized the danger faced by the plant, stating, “immediate and aggressive measures are needed to prevent [Tiehm’s buckwheat’s] extinction.”
The plight of Tiehm’s buckwheat was first made known to the world by a whistleblower at the Bureau of Land Management Tonopah Field Office, whose story was detailed in a Politico Magazine article in 2020. The whistleblower observed numerous impacts from Ioneer’s mineral exploration activities within the buckwheat’s habitat and alerted the Center to the issue.
The Center petitioned the Service to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act in 2019, citing the extinction threat posed by the proposed lithium mine.
Later that year, the Center sued the BLM and Ioneer over harms from Ioneer’s mining exploration activities, which included bulldozing roads in buckwheat habitat. That lawsuit was settled out of court, resulting in a termination of the exploration activities.
The Center has also pursued protection of Tiehm’s buckwheat in the regulatory arena. In 2020 the Center filed a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint against Ioneer, alleging the company was misleading investors by touting an unrealistic permitting timeline.
In March 2021 the Center formally petitioned the BLM to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat’s habitat as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
In April of 2021, the Center won a partial victory in litigation seeking to have Tiehm’s buckwheat protected under the Endangered Species Act on an emergency basis. A subsequent agreement with the Service led to today’s proposed rule.