Four Pine Rockland Plants May See Protection


     WASHINGTON (CN) – Joining a growing list of imperiled species, four more plants from Florida’s pine rockland ecosystem have been proposed for federal protection, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced.
     The agency is proposing to list three of the at-risk south Florida species, the Everglades bully, the Florida pineland crabgrass, and the pineland sandmat, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and to list one of the species, the Florida prairie-clover, as an endangered species. All four were recognized as candidate species in 1985, the agency said, but listing was “precluded by other higher listing activities.”
     “The populations of these four plants have declined about 80 percent over the past two decades,” the Service’s Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner said. “Habitat loss and modification are the primary threats these plants face.”
     The pine rocklands species are threatened by sea-level rise, wildfires, and especially urban development, including two proposed massive construction projects, the Coral Reef shopping mall and the Miami Wilds theme park, which would further fragment and encroach upon the plants’ shrinking habitat.
     Five federally listed animals, the Florida panther, key deer, key rice rat, eastern indigo snake and key ringneck snake, use the rocklands for foraging or nesting. Several other plant and animal species from this region have been listed or proposed for listing in recent years, including six other plants, two butterflies, a bat, and most recently, a tiger beetle. The pine rocklands region is a unique ecosystem characterized by a limestone substrate with a South Florida slash pine upper canopy and a mixed hardwood and palm subcanopy.
     Of the currently proposed plants, the Everglades bully, a six-foot tall shrub with white flowers, is known to exist in only 10 populations, some of which are in the Everglades National Park in Miami-Dade County, and some are in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Monroe County. The Florida pineland crabgrass, a blue-green clumping perennial grass, is now only found in that park and preserve.
     The pineland sandmat, a small perennial herb with an extensive root system, has only 20 populations in Miami-Dade County, including in the Everglades Park, and the Florida prairie-clover, a perennial shrub that grows up to six feet tall, is found in the Big Cypress Preserve and seven other locations in Miami-Dade County. Extinction risk for these plants is high, the agency said, because the small isolated populations have “limited to no potential for recolonization,” if they were hit by wildfires or extreme weather events, or were affected by development.
     In response to petitions and lawsuits filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and other conservation groups, the agency agreed to a court-approved six-year workplan in 2011 to speed listing decisions for hundreds of backlogged species that have been waiting for protection, some for decades. That workplan is winding down this fall. The determinations for these four Florida plants are part of that settlement agreement.
     “The incredibly unique plants and animals of South Florida are slipping away before our very eyes,” CBD’s Florida director Jaclyn Lopez said. “It’s a relief to know that at least these four plants are finally getting the protection they need to survive and recover.”
     Even if the plants’ protection is finalized under the ESA, the proposed developments may not be affected by the listings. The ESA provides restrictions on commercial trade and importing or exporting of listed species, but unless the development projects are on federal land or require federal permits, they would not be affected by the listings, the agency said. “If the four plants are listed under the ESA, the Service will continue to work cooperatively with partners to conserve their habitat,” the agency said. “The Service hopes that landowners will be good stewards of any federally-listed plants on their property, and the Service has a program, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife, which provides landowners with technical and financial assistance to landowners interested in managing their property for the benefit of fish, wildlife and plants.”
     Critical habitat and a draft economic analysis will be proposed in a separate action, according to the agency.
     Comments on the listing proposal are due by Dec. 12, and written public hearing requests are due by Nov. 25.

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