Renewing the case for saving endangered plants

When most people think of endangered species, they think of animals like polar bears, tigers, and whales. Plants, however, make up 56 percent of U.S. species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Many of them are far more imperiled than the iconic animals that dominate the public’s attention. For example, Phyllostegia kaalaensis, a species of flowering plant in the mint family, is now extinct in the wild. And nearly 240 other Hawaiian plant species are similarly teetering on the brink, with 50 or fewer individuals remaining of each. For comparison, there around 26,000 polar bears.  

Even worse, despite making up the majority of federally endangered species, plants get less than 5 percent of federal and state funding for recovery. On numbers alone, the ESA will never reach its full potential without much more funding and restoration for endangered plants. This is one reason I attended the second Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation Conference two weeks ago at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. For nearly five days, about 200 botanists discussed how to save rare and imperiled plants in the southeastern U.S. Below are four of my observations from the conference, focused on how better policies could help save more endangered plants.

SePPCon 2020 offered a much needed dialogue on how to improve native plant conservation in the southeastern US.

1. By spending money smarter, we can conserve more plants and secure more money for all endangered species.

One of the highlights of the conference was a discussion organized by my friend, Dr. Gwen Iacona, on how to better prioritize funding for endangered plants. The problem is that we currently don’t spend money in ways that maximize the diversity of species we conserve. For example, about 5 percent of ESA species get 80 percent of government funding. And the 778 ESA plants get just 3.3 percent of total funding. By reallocating funding more equitably across all ESA species, we can conserve far more biodiversity. Plants will be one of the main beneficiaries of this approach because they’re very disproportionately underfunded.

The most numerous group (plants) receive only 3.3% of funding. This under-allocation holds true even after accounting for the lower cost of conserving plants.

But prioritization isn’t just about conserving more biodiversity; it’s also a strategy to increase funding for species conservation broadly. For example, by prioritizing species that are most likely to benefit from funding, conservationists can more easily show success and make a far better case to Congress that more money will buy more conservation. Today, we can’t make that argument in any tangible, compelling way because the U.S. doesn’t use a national framework for deciding how best to allocate funding to endangered species.

Gwen’s discussion generated a lot of interest in developing a prioritization system for rare and imperiled plants in the southeast. As conservationists think about next steps, here are some of my thoughts on factors to consider when developing that system.

  • At the conference, we assumed that the goal of a prioritization system is to maximize the number of ESA plants that can be recovered and delisted. A prioritization system, however, could adopt a different goal, such as maximizing the number of extinctions prevented or focusing on species that disproportionately shape their ecosystems. Which goal we should adopt is a normative decision that’ll require extensive discussion at a future workshop. For now, I highlight the fact that fully recovering a species requires more funding than merely preventing its extinction. So for the same amount of funding, you could recover a certain number of species or prevent the extinction of many more species. In Hawaii, which has seen more extinctions than any other state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has often made this tradeoff in favor of extinction prevention. And rightfully so, as extinction is forever. On the other hand, continuing to make progress on delistings is crucial to showing ESA success. And without showing success, securing more funding for conservation will be difficult. To date, there’s been very limited analysis on optimizing the balance between funding extinction prevention and funding full recovery.   
  • At the conference, we focused on prioritizing funding for endangered plants, but the bigger prize is to strategically prioritize funding for all ESA species. A prioritization system limited to plants involves deciding how to reallocate the same 3.3% of funding for plants more strategically. But what plant conservation really needs is to grow that minuscule funding to double-digits. And the only way to do that, without more funding from Congress, is to reallocate funding from other species to plants. One approach is to shift funds from improving species whose conservation has reached a point of diminishing returns to declining species with underfunded recovery plans. I suspect that this latter category of “injurious neglect” species includes many plants.
  • The conference discussion identified various challenges to implementing a prioritization system. For example, what’s the best way to account for the existing and future work of conservation partners when deciding which species to prioritize? How could the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implement a prioritization system using its current budgeting process, or is a new process needed? How do we decide which ESA recovery plans provide a good foundation for prioritization? How does a prioritization system account for economies of scale when a single conservation action benefits multiple species?

A future workshop could tackle these and other questions, helping to build a strong case for allocating more funding to endangered plants.

2. Do endangered plants need stronger legal protections?

One of the most important features of the ESA is its strong legal protections, which conservation organizations fiercely defend from attacks by Congress and presidential administrations. But many people don’t realize that the ESA’s main protection—the prohibition on “taking” a species, which includes harming and harassing—doesn’t apply to any plant. ESA protection for plants is limited to restrictions on trade, malicious damage on federal lands, and destruction or possession in violation of a state law that protects plants. Many state laws, however, offer limited or no such protections.  

The absence of a take prohibition for plants creates lost opportunities for conserving plants under the ESA. For example, land managers aren’t required to develop an ESA habitat conservation plan to minimize and offset impacts to endangered plants. And section 7 consultations for plants are not required to provide “reasonable and prudent measures” to minimize the impacts of a proposed project on plants. That leaves plants protected only through the prohibitions on “jeopardy” and “adverse modification” of critical habitat, which are almost never the outcome of a section 7 consultation.

Here’s another reason the absence of a take prohibition causes missed opportunities for plant conservation. Fear of ESA regulation is often the main driver of how much funding a species gets. Think about the millions of dollars spent to try to avoid listing the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken because of concerns about ensuing land use restrictions, and the millions of dollars invested in conserving the red-cockaded woodpecker to alleviate ESA restrictions on private landowner and the military. Now think about the last time that significant funds were spent to save a plant because of concerns about land use restrictions. You’re not alone if you come up empty or with only 1-2 examples.

So, the mere existence of the take prohibition—even if unenforced, as is often the case—does encourage states, landowners, and others to negotiate a solution to avoid violating the prohibition. The book, Prohibitive Policy, offers an excellent analysis of how the ESA’s prohibitions function less as an absolute injunction on human activities and more as an invitation to negotiate a compromise between conservation and development interests. But because the take prohibition doesn’t apply to plants, the invitation to negotiate is largely absent.

The major threats to plants, as identified by conference participants. Despite development and inadequate legal protections being major threats, the ESA offers no protection against “take” of endangered plants.
Three of the nine locations of telephus spurge in Florida that Fish and Wildlife Service documented as having been extirpated because of development or habitat modification. Would stronger legal protections have reduced or prevented these losses?

This all leads to a central question: could and should Congress amend the ESA to extend the take prohibition to plants? Doing so would result in greater protections for plants on non-federal lands. But it might also discourage private landowners from cooperating in plant conservation for fear of those protections resulting in future land use restrictions. And it might also encourage preemptive or illegal destruction of plants to avoid ESA regulations. Would these drawbacks outweigh the benefits of a take prohibition for plants? I’ve not aware of any analysis of this question since 1998, but one is sorely needed. There’s also the issue of whether the federal government has the legal authority to regulate take of plants because, in common law, plants are the property of the landowner not the government. Indeed, this was precisely why Congress declined to extend the take prohibition to plants in its 1988 amendments to the ESA (see pg. 12 of Senate report here). But as Holly Wheeler has explained, several states and local jurisdictions have “upheld state and local laws and ordinances that restrict the removal of trees on private land against constitutional takings, vagueness, and due process claims.” Here too, a detailed legal analysis would tell us whether endangered plants could benefit from the take prohibition.

3. Recovering endangered plants requires a lot of active management, most of which isn’t funded or carried out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

At the conference, there was a lot of discussion about techniques for conserving endangered plants, especially prescribed burns, invasive species control, and captive propagation and reintroduction. Most of these actions are carried out by botanical gardens, universities, NGOs, state agencies, industry, land trusts, U.S. Forest Service, and private landowners. Rarely did I hear about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service having the capacity to pursue these on-the-ground projects. Rather, the agency’s role mostly focuses on keeping up with its burgeoning workload of ESA decisions and funding the work of conservation partners. Here in Washington, D.C., where a lot of the debate about the ESA centers on whether states should have more authority to implement the ESA, it’s easy to forget just how much conservation is currently done by certain states and other local partners. A better way to frame the current debate is how can states help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conserve endangered species (see forthcoming article for ideas). Many of the conservation actions I learned about at the conference would never be carried out by the Service. For example, it make no sense for the Service to spend limited resources establishing a captive propagation facility for endangered species (botanical gardens already do a great job) or to relocate endangered plants away from the path of a roadway expansion project (many state DOTs are already staffed to do that).  

For states and local partners to play a larger role conserving endangered plants, several basic gaps need to be filled. For example, all state wildlife action plans should include plants of greatest conservation concern. State Wildlife Grants should be allowed to fund plant conservation directly, rather than only their habitat. The historic reason for this restriction is that SWG funding came from excise taxes on hunting (Pittman-Robertson Act) and fishing (Dingell-Johnson Act) gear. But at least one study has found that only 14.5 percent of the funding for these acts derived from hunting activities. The private sector also plays a major role in plant conservation. For example, Georgia Power helped conserve the seaside alder, which allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the plant didn’t require ESA listing. To expand this type of work, a presidential administration focused on wildlife recovery could develop a new package of incentives for electric power utilities and others to conserve rare and imperiled plants and animals, particularly on utility rights-of-ways.

4. Endangered plants need a dedicated advocacy campaign.

The gaps in endangered plant conservation are clear, but no national campaign exists to advocate for filling those gaps. How might the botany community try to build that campaign? They could model the strategies of bird and mammal advocates to secure and maintain dedicated funding for their species. This is evident from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s budget, which in 2019 included $11 million for the Multinational Species Conservation Fund (all of which funds elephants, apes, tigers, rhinos, and sea turtles) and $3.9 million for neotropical migratory birds. Why couldn’t botanists lobby for a new federal budget account dedicated to endangered plants? Even a modest starting budget of $500,000 annually would lead to meaningful progress at conserving dozens of endangered plants, and likely result in many of those species hitting major conservation milestones within the next decade. Those successes could in turn lead to more funding as Congress realizes the return-on-investment.

2020 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget justification. Imagine lobbying for a new row titled “Plant Recovery Fund” with a modest starting budget of $500k.

My impression from the conference is that a major lift is needed to launch a campaign of this type, with capacity in DC to lobby the House and Senate appropriations committees for the Department of the Interior; to convene Congressional briefings underscoring the importance and opportunities for plant conservation; to develop polished reports about the state of endangered plant conservation, similar to the annual State of the Birds report; to organize congressional fly-ins with members of the appropriations committees; and to work with the Interior Department on how it prioritizes its budget for endangered species. None of this is new. It already happens every year but not for plants. For the plant community, the broad network of garden clubs, botanical gardens, and other botany organizations could form a sizeable network of advocates for endangered plant conservation. And because many plants can be recovered for far less money than many animals, they offer a quick path to showing how more funding leads to more conservation.   

I’ll end with one of the coolest plants I saw on a behind-the-scenes tour at the Atlanta Botanical Garden: Amborella trichopoda. It doesn’t look like much, but Amborella is the sister group to all other flowering plants and the only species in its genus, family, and order! My favorite YouTube botany channel, Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t, recently posted a great video of Amborella in its native New Caledonia habitat. It was a real privilege to finally see this ancient lineage to flowering plants.

All bow before Amborella, perhaps the most phylogenetically important plant at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

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