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Rare plant worthy of Endangered Species Act protection–But won’t get it

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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milkvetchGoose Creek milkvetch (Astragalus anserinus), a rare plant that only exists in a 25-square-kilometer area straddling the borders of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, "warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act" (ESA) but it won’t get it, because other species have "higher priorities," according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).

The FWS announced its decision on the plant Thursday. The species remains on the FWS’s "candidate list," although there is no prediction of when, or if, it will actually receive ESA protection.

It took more than five years for the FWS to come up with this decision. More than 25 conservation organizations first petitioned them in 2004 to protect this species of milkvetch. The service then spent several years collecting data on the plant to see if it deserved protection under the act.

The Goose Creek milkvetch has fared poorly since the original petition. More than half of the population was lost in 2007 during a summer wildfire that burned 25 percent of the species’s habitat in Nevada and Utah.


Image: Goose Creek milkvetch, via Nevada National Heritage Program





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  1. 1. way2ec 11:05 pm 09/14/2009

    I’m sorry but this does NOT make any sense. If it is rare, endangered, or endemic to such a small area, can someone please explain how this doesn’t warrant listing? If a single fire can and has destroyed half the population, what more does it take to get listed? And if and when it is extinct, does it get a post-mortem listing, oops, probably should’a’ listed it?

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  2. 2. ilike2skik2 11:24 pm 09/14/2009

    sadly enough its because it is already so likely to go extinct that the chances that the ESA could provide enough protection to prevent extinction are very low. at the rate species are nearing extinction, we have to use a cost balancing accounting scheme to decide which species to protect and which we are going to allow to fall off the wagon. we have simply pushed too many species to the brink that we cannot possibly afford to save them all, so we focus on the species that have the most likely chances of recovery. its a sad reality of the world we have created.

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  3. 3. Velstras 1:20 am 09/15/2009

    I don’t understand what is so important about this obscure species that we need to spend resources to protect it from extinction. Does it have some sort of medicinal use or something that isn’t being mentioned?

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  4. 4. Amandine 4:59 am 09/15/2009

    That’s one of the reasons why it is being studied, so just in case the plant is profitable in some way. If it happens to be of pharmaceutical value, then of course they would save it to capitalize on it. The other reason is to determine whether or not the rest of the surrounding ecosystem would fare well if this plant would perish overnight. Usually, species that die out also result in the organisms in their food chain dying off as well. for example, the dodo plant and the dodo tree.

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  5. 5. Extremophile 1:11 pm 09/15/2009

    Velstras, I am happy that you are not living in my neighbour.
    I imagine a fire in my house, my family in lethal danger , and you start calculating their use and value for you: "Are they really worth saving? Will they pay back my effort of rescuing them?"
    Species have a value on their own. While extinction is a normal process, the current rate of species getting lost is not.

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  6. 6. krabcat 1:47 pm 09/15/2009

    if it is not yet on the list would it not be legal, for some of the people trying to save it, to collect some and grow them on there own to save them from complete extinction?

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  7. 7. way2ec 1:53 pm 09/15/2009

    Forgive my ignorance but does listing a species mean money has to be spent? I have always assumed that listing was a way to make public its endangered status, so if, for example, someone wants to build a golf course that would destroy the species, they at least would KNOW about this "weed". How many other animal and plant species are not even listed, thus preventing the public from knowing their status. I don’t need another conspiracy theory but to deny this species or any other the protection (however feeble) of even being LISTED begs further abuse of the environment. Will we begin to assign values to whole ecosystems as the rate of extinction accelerates?

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