US eyes rare flower habitat amid Nevada lithium mine fight

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to designate critical habitat for a Nevada wildflower it intends to list as endangered amid a dispute over a mine to produce lithium batteries for electric vehicles essential to the Biden administration’s plans to fight climate change.

The agency has proposed designating critical habitat for Tiehm’s buckwheat on a high desert ridge near the California line midway between Reno and Las Vegas.

It is the only place in the world where the delicate 6 inch tall wildflower with yellow flowers is known.

It is also the site where Ioneer USA Corp. plans to build a large lithium mine.

Ioneer says the proposed designation was “an anticipated development” that “has no material impact on our planned mining operations.”

The Australia-based company notes that mining activity is permitted in areas designated as critical habitat if approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.

“Ioneer has already taken this into account in its proposed planning and operations and continues to work closely with both agencies to ensure that its proposed activities will not jeopardize the conservation of the species,” it said. he said in a statement Wednesday.

In its official Notice of Proposed Habitat Designation, the Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday that “this unit is critical to the conservation and recovery of Tiehm’s buckwheat because it supports all of the habitat occupied by Tiehm’s buckwheat in the range of the species.”

Conservationists who have taken legal action to protect the plant have welcomed the move.

“This proposed critical habitat rule sends a clear message that protecting Tiehm’s buckwheat’s natural range is the only way to prevent its extinction,” said California Conservation Director Naomi Fraga. Botanic Garden, which joined the Center for Biological Diversity’s 2019 petition. to classify the plant as endangered.

Unless the Fish and Wildlife Service backtracks on new information, the plant will be declared endangered in September based on a court order and the agency’s final listing rule in October 2021. who concluded that it may already be on the brink of extinction.

This registration triggers certain regulatory obligations, such as consulting the service before any development or other activity that could harm the plant. But the designation identifies specific habitat that “may require special management and protection” – in this case, “to cope with mining development, road development and [off-highway vehicle] activity, livestock grazing, non-native invasive plant species and herbivory,” the agency said.

The plant grows on about 10 acres of land – an area about the size of 130 football fields – at Rhyolite Ridge in the Silver Peak Range west of Tonopah, 200 miles southeast of Reno. It is believed that there are less than 30,000.

The 910 acres proposed for habitat designation — about half a square mile — would provide a buffer zone of about 1,650 feet around plants to ensure access for bees and other pollinators.

Conservationists argued for a buffer three times larger, while Ioneer suggested less than a tenth would be sufficient.

The company says its project will come with a conservation strategy, which includes transplanting flowers and growing new ones with seeds it collected in a greenhouse propagation experiment at the University of Nevada, Reno.

But conservationists say the proposed designation reaffirms their contention that it won’t work, or at least won’t pass legal scrutiny.

“Ioneer’s plans to destroy much of the plant’s habitat and establish it elsewhere are highly unlikely to meet a Critical Habitat designation, as the rule recognizes that these areas are essential for the species,” said Patrick Donnelly, director of the center in Nevada.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said Ioneer’s conservation strategy remains “in its early stages.” He said Ioneer intended to avoid and fence off part of the land, “remove and salvage any remaining plants…and move them to another location.”

But the service said soil studies and results from greenhouse propagation experiments show that there is a “unique envelope of soil conditions in which Tiehm’s buckwheat grows that is different from adjacent unoccupied soils.”

“Areas outside the occupied zone do not support these physical and biological characteristics and we are not convinced that they would support Tiehm buckwheat populations,” he said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has the authority to exclude the area from designation if she determines that such an exclusion would outweigh the benefits, “unless we determine … not to designate such an area will drive the species to extinction,” the agency said.

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