Imperiled Florida Plants Eye Federal Protection

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Four plants found only in two Florida counties were proposed for listing protection Tuesday under the Endangered Species Act, due to development and sea level rise. Big Pine partridge pea, wedge spurge, sand flax and Blodgett’s silverbush exist in only small isolated populations in southern Florida’s Miami-Dade County, and the Lower Florida Keys’ Monroe County.
     The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Blodgett’s silverbush for threatened listing status, and the other three plants are proposed for endangered listing status under the ESA.
     The populations of all four plants have been fragmented due to extensive development pressures. It is estimated that only 24,000 acres of the pine rockland habitat, where these plants are found, remain.
     “The populations of these four plants have declined about 80 percent over the past two decades,” Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Region Director Cindy Dohner said. “Habitat loss and habitat modification are the primary threats these plants face.”
     Pine rocklands are found on flat well-drained land from 6.5 to 23 feet above sea level, and all four plants are found in the narrow range of 9 to 13.5 feet above sea level, making them extremely susceptible to storm surges, hurricanes and sea level rise. Global warming models show a higher probability of more intense storms, the agency said.
     Best case scientific scenarios estimate a global sea level rise of 3.3 to 6.6 feet by 2100, which would mean a loss of 38 percent of the Florida Keys upland area, while worst-case scenarios predict up to a 55 foot rise, which would mean a loss of up to 92 percent of the Florida Keys upland areas, according to the action. Sea level rise in Florida threatens many coastal plant communities due to the increased salinity of the soil.
     A study in one pine rocklands location found a 65 percent reduction in South Florida slash pine, a signature habitat species, over a 70-year period, with increased proportions of salt-loving plants. During this same time period, local sea level rose by 6 inches, the agency said.
     These four proposed plants, two shrubs and two herbs, were originally put forward as endangered or threatened species by a 1975 Smithsonian Institution study. Since that time, the plants have been in lingering listing limbo due to lack of information or “higher listing priorities,” according to the action.
     In September 2011, the agency settled a lawsuit filed by environmental groups spearheaded by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to move forward on listing determinations for hundreds of species over a six year period.
     “It’s amazing these four plants have survived the development that’s destroyed nearly all pine rocklands habitat,” CBD’s Florida director Jaclyn Lopez said. “Endangered Species Act protection will help reverse their decline and highlight the importance of this unique habitat.”
     The Blodgett’s silverbush is proposed for threatened listing because the threat of habitat loss from sea level rise and development is not as severe for this species. It may be less vulnerable because it has more populations than the other three species, and it is the only one of the four species that occurs in the Everglades National Park, where it has a stable population and management practices occur on a regular basis.
     “Federally-listed plants are not protected from damage, collection, movement or destruction on non-federal lands. However, it is illegal to collect or maliciously harm them on federal land. Federal agencies would need to ensure activities they authorize, fund, or carry out, whether on public or private land, are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of these plants. The plants also are protected from commercial trade,” the agency said.
     Critical habitat is being considered for each species, and is to be proposed at a later date, according to the agency. Comments are requested by Nov. 30, and requests for public hearings are due by Nov. 13.

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