When a plant species is present in only one
or two wildlife preserves on the entire planet, you might think
protecting any plants of this species that are found elsewhere would be
The Endangered Species Act says otherwise in an indirect way.
If you want to trigger a federal endangered species review, the species
involved better have a cardiovascular system. Having simply a vascular
system is not good enough. That's right, you have to be fauna to get the
government's attention to keep the bulldozers at bay.
Federal wildlife officials require an incidental take permit to destroy rare animals or their habitat. No permits are required to destroy rare plants.
Many rare plants are endemic species and sometimes share their space with endemic rare animals, so the protection comes indirectly.
But why does it have to be that way?
It seems that plants are important on their own and not just as a complement to animal habitat. Strengthening the legal protection would up the ante on endangered species protection.
If someone needed to secure a federal review to destroy plants as well as animals, it might obstruct some of the habitat loss that's occurring. After all, it was the habitat loss that put some of these species on the endangered species list in the first place.
Let me provide a concrete example.
My experience is primarily with the Lake Wales Ridge, a chain of prehistoric
islands in the middle of the Florida peninsula. The Lake Wales Ridge is home to more than 30 rare and endangered plants and animals, though plants make up the majority of the listed species.
Like many island species, the plants and animals here are endemic, which means they're found nowhere else. Australia is probably the best known example of this.
The available habitat for these species was once relatively extensive. As recently as 75 years ago some of the species were still considered common.
However,the combination of agricultural conversion for citrus or development or both in succession has eliminated 85 percent of the original habitat, leaving remnants scattered across the landscape.
It gets worse.
The species aren't distributed uniformly and some are more common that others. One species, the Florida ziziphus, was presumed to be extinct, only to be found by accident somewhere in an out=of-way piece of woodlands. Now scientists are trying figure out if there's a large enough gene pool left to preserve a sustainable population.
Then there's issue of habitat management. These species live in a fire-adapted
environment. When development eats up habitat, the patches are harder to manage
because fires cause smoke and neighbors may complain without aggressive smoke management on the preserves, which requires more staff and expense.
In addition, the preserves need buffers to blunt the impact of invasive species that are common at the edge of developed areas. Many of these species can outcompete the endangered species. They are also expensive to control.
That is why more land needs to be preserved among the parcels that remain. It would
seem that if developers needed permits to destroy endangered plants, they might set more land aside or be forced to pay conservation agencies to set aside more land elsewhere.
That would be the real benefit of giving endangered plants more legal protection.