(CN) — After nearly five decades of pleas for protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday officially declared the marrón bacora endangered and designated 2,548 acres as critical habitat.
Endemic to the Virgin Islands, the marrón bacora is a shrub known for its bright purple flowers and towering height, reaching over nine feet tall. The plant produces a green fruit with white striations and is a member of the Solanaceae family, or nightshades, similarly to many agricultural crops such as eggplants and tomatoes.
Protection for the marrón bacora comes just a day after the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against U.S. Fish and Wildlife, accusing it of not following through with its settlement agreement to issue the final protections in 2020.
The Arizona based, non-profit first sued the Service in 2004, for failing to act on a petition for protection submitted by the Virgin Islands government in 1996, just a few years after the believed to be extinct, rare shrub was rediscovered.
When the U.S. denied protection in 2006, the center brought a second lawsuit, and in 2011, Fish and Wildlife published a 12-month finding for the marrón bacora that finally warranted its need for protection, but has since precluded action for other higher-priority focuses.
“I’m thrilled this gorgeous plant is finally protected, but five decades is far too long to wait,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. “The clear scientific evidence should have made it an easy decision to protect the marrón bacora, but cumbersome bureaucracy and political interference at the Fish and Wildlife Service delayed protections. These problems have to be addressed. The Service should be the strongest advocate fighting against extinction, but it seems far too concerned with avoiding controversy and preserving bureaucratic fiefdoms.”
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there are only approximately 200 organisms of the flower, scientifically known as Solanum conocarpum, living in the wild; 185 of them are on private land.
The marrón bacora is a dioecious plant, meaning there are male and female individuals but the flowers are never both, and are obligate outcrossers, so they must reproduce with another of the opposite type. The fewer the numbers, the lower the species’ chance for survival.
The species has been reduced to just seven fragmented populations on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, and one population on Tortola, British Virgin Islands, which is not under U.S. Fish and Wildlife jurisdiction.
While all but one of the St. John populations is within Virgin Islands National Park, where they are protected from any future urban developments, neighboring areas are vulnerable as the human population increases.
St. John has a history of land-use changes that resulted in habitat loss and degradation, further isolating suitable habitats in patches that were not readily connected.
When Europeans came to the island in 1717, the forested landscape of St. John was parceled into more than 100 estates for agriculture, and the majority of the natural plants were cleared to grow sugarcane and cotton.
Nonnative livestock such as deer, goats, pigs and donkeys also damage the dry forests where the plant lives and eat its fruit, limiting reproduction.
Marrón bacora populations were decimated, as settlers had no economic use for the species and urban developments grew over time, especially after the introduction of white-tailed deer to St. John in the 1920s. Originally brought over to provide hunting opportunities, the deer have since increased in numbers, foraging on the native vegetation.
The island habitat was further devastated in 2017 by hurricanes Irma and Maria. According to the Service's findings, the climate crisis is predicted to increase tropical storm frequency and intensity and cause severe droughts, both of which harm the plant.
“Despite projected increased storm intensity and frequency related to future hurricane seasons, climate change models for tropical islands predict that, for example, by the mid-21st century, Puerto Rico will be subject to a decrease in overall rainfall, along with an increase in annual drought intensity,” wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in their ruling.
While the species has been successfully propagated in conservation efforts, the reintroductions have yielded unsuccessful results with a very low long-term survival rate for propagated and reintroduced plants, and even lower for relocated adult plants.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, designation of critical habitat provides protection for endangered species by prohibiting federal agencies from permitting, funding, or carrying out actions that “adversely modify” these designated areas and also by providing information to local governments and citizens as to why they should help conserve it.