Feds Upgrade Cactus to ‘Threatened’ as Numbers Rebound

(CN) – Reduced federal protection for a recovering southwest cactus is a win for ranchers who find protections burdensome, and for conservationists who strive to protect imperiled species.

The Tobusch fishhook cactus, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has downlisted from endangered to threatened amid improving survival odds. (Chris Best/USFWS)

“While the Tobusch fishhook cactus isn’t completely out of the woods yet, the signs are very encouraging,” said Amy Lueders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest regional director. “Today’s decision to downlist the cactus is a victory for the collaborative model of conservation that engages states, private landowners and conservation groups to play a central role in species’ recovery.”

The service said Monday it has finalized the downlisting of the Tobusch fishhook cactus due to recovery. When an endangered species is downlisted to threatened status, the federal Endangered Species Act allows for greater flexibility regarding prohibitions against harming the species.

That is good news for ranchers who raise cattle in areas with endangered plants, and the reason why cattle growers in New Mexico and Texas got together to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service to move forward on its own determination that this cactus had recovered sufficiently to be downlisted.

In 2010, Fish and Wildlife completed a 5-year status review of the cactus and recommended downlisting. Because the agency had not yet acted on the recommendation, the Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, the Texas Farm Bureau and other ranchers petitioned in 2011 to spur action.

Fish and Wildlife published a 90-day finding in 2013 acknowledging that the petitioned action was warranted but did not push forward with the downlisting. So, the cattle growers sued the agency in 2015 to compel Fish and Wildlife to take the next step in the downlisting process, a 12-month finding.

Finally, the agency published the 12-month finding with a proposal to downlist the cactus at the very end of 2016. Downlisting marks an important milestone on the road to full recovery.

For that reason, downlisting also represents a win for conservationists who have to push back against those in the current administration who are hostile to the Endangered Species Act and its perceived limitations on businesses and industry. A common theme in the complaints is that the act does not work because so many listed species are still protected and have not fully recovered.

The Tobusch fishhook cactus exemplifies this situation. It was listed in 1979, just a few years after the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973.

Conservationists take a long view. To them, the fact that listed species have managed to avoid extinction is a sign of success for the Endangered Species Act. Because many species are so close to extinction before they are listed, recovery is not always a fast process.

The Tobusch cactus lives up to 50 years, but it takes nine years for this little cactus to become reproductively mature, and it produces an average of only 112 seeds per year. Any seeds that resulted from self-fertilized flowers are usually not viable.

When the cactus was listed, there were only 200 plants found in four sites, two of which had been destroyed by floods. Now they are found in eight central Texas counties with an estimated population of 3,336 individuals.

However, because the population got so low, lack of genetic diversity is a continuing risk factor for the cactus along with insect parasites and the rooting and trampling of feral hogs. Now, climate change also poses an increasing risk, according to the downlisting action.

“This is the second species of cactus showing progress toward recovery in the last few days, thanks to the Endangered Species Act,” said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Because the Act is based on science, cacti in southwestern deserts join a growing list of unique plants and animals no longer on the brink of extinction.”

The other cactus Robinson mentioned is the Kuenzler hedgehog cactus in New Mexico. Fish and Wildlife announced its downlisting on May 10, and it was also a subject of the cattlemen’s suit along with the gypsum wild-buckwheat, black-capped vireo and the lesser long-nosed bat.

Regarding the Kuenzler hedgehog downlisting, Robinson said, “My own badly misguided congressman, Steve Pearce, has helped lead the Republican attack on the Endangered Species Act. But the Kuenzler hedgehog cactus in his own district might have dwindled to a few plants or none at all if President Richard Nixon hadn’t had the wisdom to propose this law and sign it just in time to save the cactus and many other wondrous plants and animals.”

The Tobusch fishhook cactus reclassification as a threatened species is effective 30 days from the expected publication date of May 15.

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