Rare Orchid Finally Has Federal Protection

     WASHINGTON (CN) — The rare white fringeless orchid, first listed as a candidate species in 1980, has finally been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The plant was on the list of more than 3000 at-risk plant species compiled by the Smithsonian Institution and presented to Congress in January 1975, according to the listing proposal. In July 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted the entirety of that list as petitioned species under the ESA.
     After a decades-long wait, the orchid was included in the Service’s six-year workplan that resulted from a 2011 Multi-District Litigation settlement agreement between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation group and its allies to speed listing decisions for the backlog of hundreds of imperiled species across the country. That workplan is winding down at the end of September.
     “I’m breathing a sigh of relief that this beautiful flower has finally gained Endangered Species Act protection after a 41-year wait,” Tierra Curry, a CBD senior scientist, said. “Protecting the white fringeless orchid will also protect the threatened marshy habitats that are such a special part of the southeast’s natural heritage.”
     The orchid is found is small isolated populations widely scattered across Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi. Of the 57 known locations, 33 are found on public lands, mainly in forest wetlands. Less than 20 percent of the populations have more than 100 flowering plants.
     The plant is dependent on three butterflies for pollination, and on a particular fungus to aid the tiny windblown seeds to sprout and become established. Threats to any of those species also threaten the orchid, which is additionally challenged by habitat destruction from development, forestry practices, alteration of stream habitats, invasive species and collection.
     “Collection is an historical and ongoing problem. Hundreds of specimens were collected in the 1940s. A 1992 status survey for the species included reports of two nurseries collecting white fringeless orchid plants for resale. More recently, evidence of collecting was observed at a Georgia site in 2004, and in 2014, biologists from the Service and the state of Tennessee documented the loss of 52 plants to collecting from a roadside occurrence,” the agency said.
     The Service determined that making a critical habitat designation at this time was “not prudent,” due to the ongoing threat of collection. Critical habitat designations are published in the Federal Register, and detail, with maps, exact locations of populations.
     “Identification of critical habitat would increase the magnitude and severity of this threat by spatially depicting exactly where the species may be found and widely publicizing this information, exposing these fragile populations and their habitat to greater risks,” according to the listing rule.
     The Service will develop a recovery plan and work with its public and private partners to conserve habitat and increase population numbers so that it no longer needs ESA protection, the agency said.
     “Because of its small populations across six states and myriad threats, conserving the white fringeless orchid comes with challenges,” Cindy Dohner, USFWS Southeast Regional Director, said. “We hope our partners will rally to recover the plant before its situation becomes more critical.”
     For plants listed as threatened species under the ESA, it is illegal to take or damage specimens from areas under federal protection, or in violation of any state law, or to possess or engage in interstate or international commerce of the plant without authorization from the USFWS, according to the agency. Federal agencies are required to make sure that their own actions or actions they fund or authorize do not further imperil the species.The listing takes effect Oct. 13.

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