Rare Orchid Gets Listing |Nod After 40-Year Wait

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list an orchid found in small numbers across five southeastern states as threatened under the Endangered Species Act Tuesday.
     The white fringeless orchid was first brought to the agency’s attention in 1975 as part of a Smithsonian Institution report on endangered and threatened species commissioned by the Service. Since that time, the orchid has languished in listing limbo due to various factors, such as lack of information on vulnerability and threats, and higher listing priorities.
     In 2011, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and its environmentalist allies secured a settlement agreement with Fish and Wildlife to finalize listing determinations for 757 species by 2018, including the orchid. To date, 142 species have gained protection and 11 more have been proposed for protection, according to the CBD’s response statement to the proposed orchid listing.
     Small isolated orchid populations are scattered across Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi. There is also an unconfirmed occurrence in South Carolina. The plants face threats from habitat destruction, forestry practices, water flow changes, invasive species, wildlife grazing and collecting.
     Because collection is an ongoing threat, the Service has determined that designating critical habitat for the plant would “not be prudent,” because the likely increase in illegal collection would outweigh the benefit of designation. A critical habitat designation requires publication of maps and a description of specific areas in the publicly-accessible Federal Register. “In 2014, biologists from the Service and the state of Tennessee documented the loss of 52 plants to collecting from a roadside occurrence in Tennessee,” the agency said.
     The orchids are pollinated by three butterfly species, which could compound the orchid’s vulnerability due to threats to pollinator species, such as pesticide use and climate change. In addition, the orchids rely on a single species of fungi to provide nutrients needed for sprouting and establishing early growth. Such specialized interdependence can contribute to the plant’s susceptibility, and provides additional challenges to the widely scattered, small, isolated and declining populations.
     “In proposing to list the white fringeless orchid as threatened, we are acknowledging the severity of the threats it faces, and hopefully sounding a warning that will bring the increased conservation efforts needed to recover the plant before its situation becomes more dire,” Cindy Dohner, the Service’s Southeast Regional Director, said.
     Because the agency has determined the orchid is not facing imminent extinction, it is proposed for listing as a threatened species, meaning it is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.
     Just over half the known orchid sites are on federal, state or local government lands. At least two other sites on private land are protected under conservation easements. Of all the sites where flowering plants have recently been observed, more than 60 percent have had low numbers of flowering plants, with 37 percent of sites having fewer than 10 flowering plants ever recorded.
     “I’m elated that the white fringeless orchid has finally been proposed for Endangered Species Act protection after a 40-year wait,” Tierra Curry, a CBD senior scientist said. “Protecting this tall, monkey-faced flower will also protect the swampy habitats that are such a special but threatened part of the natural heritage of the Southeast.”
     Comments on the proposed listing are due Nov. 16, and written requests for public hearings must be submitted by Oct. 30.

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