Nearly Extinct Grass May Finally Get Protection

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Friday proposed listing the Guadalupe fescue bunchgrass, found in only one U.S. location, as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The grass was first identified by the Smithsonian Institution as a potentially endangered species in 1975, in a report to Congress. Later that year, the USFWS accepted that report on more than 3000 at-risk species as a petition to list them under the ESA.
     The fescue languished in listing limbo until the agency was petitioned on its behalf by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation organization, Dr. Jane Goodall and others in 2004. The CBD and other groups later sued the agency for inaction on a backlog of petitioned species, and a multi-year workplan to speed listing decisions for over 700 species was worked out in a settlement agreement in 2011. The fescue is part of the workplan, which winds down at the end of this month.
     Historically, the fescue was known to occur in only six sites, one each in the Guadalupe Mountains and Chisos Mountains in Texas, and in four sites in Mexico. Even though three of the four sites in Mexico are in protected natural areas, only one population in Mexico has been recently confirmed. The status of the others “remains unknown,” according to the listing proposal.
     The grass was last seen in the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas in 1952, and that population is now believed to be locally extinct, leaving only the population in the Chisos Mountains, in what is now Big Bend National Park as the only confirmed U.S. population. Two plots within that population, representing up to half the remaining individuals, have been monitored over a 22-year period. The plot population has “decreased significantly over time, from a high of 125 and 127 individuals in 1993 and 1994, to 47 individuals in 2013 and 2014,” according to the action.
     The fescue is a perennial bunchgrass, meaning it grows in discrete tufts and lives year to year. It can grow up to 40 inches tall, and is found in what is known as “sky island” habitats, in conifer-oak woodlands above 6000 feet in elevation.
     “The Guadalupe fescue was like green gold to cattle ranchers,” CBD’s Michael Robinson said. “The Endangered Species Act will give this graceful grass a chance to return to some of the other sky island woodlands where it formerly thrived.”
     In addition to over-grazing, invasive species, climate change, and small population size and isolation also pose threats to the grass. Because its reproductive mechanisms are poorly understood, it is possible that the wildfire management practices in Big Bend Park are also contributing to the population’s decline. Low intensity wildfires may be necessary to reduce leaf-litter accumulations. The last major fire in the park was more than 70 years ago. “The long absence of fire and the resulting accumulation of fuels also increase the risk of more intense wildfire, which could result in the loss of the remaining Guadalupe fescue population in the United States,” the agency noted.
     The Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Big Bend National Park partnered with the agency to establish Candidate Conservation Agreements in 1998 and 2008. The objectives of these ten-year agreements are to provide for research, monitoring, seed and plant banking, staff and visitor education, and the formation of an advisory team of experts to cooperate with Mexican agencies and researchers to preserve known populations and possibly discover new ones. The agency’s optimistic forecast at the announcement of the 2008 agreement has not played out. “If successfully and fully implemented, it may be possible to remove the plant from the candidate list,” the agency said at the time.
     However, the ESA has a strong track record of preserving at-risk species that attain listing protection. A recovery plan will be formulated for the species, if the proposed listing is finalized. The agency is also proposing the designation of 7,815 acres of critical habitat in a separate, but concurrently published, action. Comments on the listing proposal and the critical habitat proposal are due Nov. 8.

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