WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Friday designated critical habitat for two rare cacti species in Florida that are endangered by rising sea levels and collection. In total, the agency designated 7,855 acres in several Florida counties as crucial habitat for the Florida semaphore cactus and the aboriginal prickly apple under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“The areas being designated as critical habitat are essential to conserving these two cacti,” Cindy Dohner, the Service’s Southeast Regional Director, said. “We used the best scientific information concerning their present and historical ranges, habitat, and biology to select these areas.”
Both cacti were listed as endangered species under the ESA in November 2013, as part of a 2011 court-ordered settlement between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which mandated a multi-year workplan to address the backlog of listing determinations for hundreds of species across the country.
“The Service has done a great job of moving quickly to get these plants the protections they need to survive sea-level rise,” CBD attorney and the group’s Florida director, Jaclyn Lopez, said. “Management under the Endangered Species Act will ensure that these two beautiful and rare plants will be around for generations to come.”
The two large shrubby or tree-like cacti live at or just above sea level. The semaphore cactus is believed to number fewer than 1,500 plants, and is found in two naturally-occurring populations and five reintroduced populations. The prickly-apple is even rarer, with 300-500 plants as of the last survey in 2007.
“If worst-case sea-level-rise projections become a reality, much of these plants’ habitat will be inundated. In order to survive, the plants will likely need to be reintroduced to suitable higher-elevation sites outside their historical ranges, and scientists predict that they will likely escape extinction only if emissions are reduced and the worst sea-level rise predictions are not realized,” the CBD said in their reaction to the habitat designation.
In addition to rising sea levels, and the resulting increase in soil salinity, the cacti face threats from a nonnative cactus moth, competition from nonnative invasive plant species, low genetic diversity and collection by “cactus enthusiasts,” the agency said.
The agency reversed its position on designating habitat from the October 2012 proposed listing, in which the agency indicated it would not designate habitat for the plants because publishing the locations of the cacti populations could enable poachers to further decimate remaining populations. However, comments on the proposal indicated that the locations of the populations were already well known to collectors.
The critical habitat designation includes federal, state, county and private lands. For the semaphore cactus, only 576 acres of its 4,411 acre designation are on private land, most of which is owned by The Nature Conservancy, with the remainder owned by private landowners, the agency said.
Of the 3,444 acres designated for the prickly apple, about one quarter of it is privately-owned. The designation for this plant comprises 11 units, two of which currently contain no populations but do contain suitable habitat for its reintroduction.
“Although some of the areas within the critical habitat designation are located on private land, there are no federal regulations affecting critical habitat on private lands unless the activity is authorized, funded, or carried out by a federal agency. Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. If federal funds are involved in a project in the area, the government agency will need to consult with the Service to help landowners avoid, reduce or mitigate potential impacts to the plant or to ensure actions do not negatively affect these plants or modify their critical habitat,” the Service explained.
The habitat designation is effective as of Feb. 22.
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