Recovery of Rare Mint Hailed as 2017’s First Success

(CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing a Southern California mountain mint from the list of endangered and threatened species, finding the plant has successfully recovered in abundance.

Hidden Lake bluecurls, four-inch plants in the mint family with deep blue flowers, are found only along the perimeter of a montane vernal pool in Riverside County, the agency said.

“Southern California is home to numerous plants found nowhere else in the world,” Paul Souza, regional director for the agency’s Pacific Southwest region, said. “We appreciate the efforts of our partners to conserve the bluecurls and numerous other rare and endangered plants that maintain functioning ecosystems.”

Vernal-pool ecosystems are populated by many rare and highly specialized species that can live nowhere else. Due to agriculture and development, vernal pools are a disappearing feature of the native California landscape.

The pools are formed by a substrate of hardpan clay that creates a watertight barrier to absorption. During the spring rains, low areas fill with rain water, forming shallow pools, some large enough to be considered seasonal lakes. The pools typically evaporate during the hot, dry California summers.

Bluecurls call a vernal pool in Mount San Jacinto State Park home, and have been impacted by recreational uses such as hiking, swimming and horseback riding.

The bluecurls were on the original list of more than 3,000 at-risk plant species prepared by the Smithsonian Institution and presented to Congress in 1975. Fish and Wildlife considered the Smithsonian’s report to be a petition to list the species under the Endangered Species Act, and in 1983, the agency found that the plant’s listing as a threatened species was “warranted but precluded by other pending listing actions.”

Fish and Wildlife finally listed the plant as endangered in 1998.

Since then, the agency has worked with the state park to reduce threats, and with the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden for research into the plant’s biology, life history, germination requirements and seed bank viability, the agency said.

“California State Parks is pleased that our efforts, along with those of our partners have proven fruitful,” Ken Kietzer, senior environmental scientist for California State Parks, said. “We look forward to being able to continue to provide for the preservation of this species while providing park visitors with a unique recreational experience by allowing them access to this sensitive site and sharing a message of conservation success.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the agency’s most frequent petitioners and complainants on behalf of imperiled species, hailed the proposed removal of the bluecurls from the list of endangered and threatened species as the first success story of 2017.

“The Endangered Species Act has saved yet another species from extinction,” Ileene Anderson, the group’s senior scientist, said. “Thanks to this highly effective law, the beautiful Hidden Lake bluecurls will now be around for generations to come.”

Last year, the two federal agencies charged with listing species as endangered – Fish and Wildlife for land-based species and the National Marine Fisheries Service for marine species – de-listed 11 species due to recovery and proposed four other species for downlisting from endangered to threatened, according to the center. “More endangered species were found to be partially or fully recovered in 2016 than in any other year since the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973,” the group said.

When a previously listed species is removed from the list of endangered and threatened species, the agency prepares a long-term monitoring and management plan. As part of that effort, seeds from the bluecurls have been placed in a seed bank for reintroduction in case a catastrophic climate event occurs.

One of the concerns for the bluecurls’ future is how climate change will affect the plants, be it through the current or future droughts, increasingly severe storms, or any other alteration to the annual rainfall cycle.

“I’m concerned about how climate change will hurt this highly localized mountain flower,” Anderson said. “But I’m also hopeful that ongoing monitoring will ensure the flower survives if climate change affects its fragile alpine habitat.”

The agency is accepting comments and information on the listing until March 6, and written requests for public hearings by Feb. 21.