Did you know that it is often legal to buy and sell endangered species of plants through the mail? It's true. Take, for example, the rare Hawaiian palm tree Pritchardia remota, one of several species collectively known as lou'lu. The tree, like many in its genus, is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), but right now there are several for sale on eBay. If those sellers have the right permit, then their sales are both legal and within the goals and scopes of the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, new research finds that the commercial trade of endangered plant species rarely lives up to law.

Plant sales and private cultivation are actually encouraged under the ESA, which recognizes that commercial propagation is often essential to the survival of listed species. Individuals can collect endangered plants from the wild (as long as they don't do it from federal land), raise them and sell either whole plants or seeds. The ESA does have one requirement: sellers must apply for a $100 permit (pdf) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) if plants are sold across state lines.

But the first in-depth study of online plant sales has found that many if not most sellers appear to lack this essential permit. The study—conducted by researchers at University of Notre Dame and published May 28 in Conservation Letters—found 49 federally listed plant species for sale on the Internet on eBay and other sites. The researchers, who conducted their searches between October 2009 and January 2011, then compared the listings with permit notices published in the Federal Register. They found that only four sellers, two of which were conservation organizations, had obtained the necessary interstate commerce permits. The remaining sellers all appeared to lack the permit.

Lead researcher Patrick Shirey, a Ph.D. candidate at Notre Dame's Department of Biological Sciences, first observed this phenomenon while working on an earlier paper about human-assisted colonization of threatened plants under the ESA, which was published in Conservation Letters in December 2009. When researching that paper, he says, "we noticed that the sellers of Tennessee coneflower and Virginia roundleaf birch didn't advertise the required permit when offering plants for sale. We wanted to know if commercial trade was common for other listed plants."

The researchers studied hundreds of plant species, including 753 on the ESA and dozens more that are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While many of the plants offered for sale were obviously from cultivated populations, they did observe many species that have been threatened by over-collecting from wild populations. They did not track actual completed financial transactions, only plants offered for sale, nor did they look at sales that did not cross state borders, which would not have required the ESA permit. (Each state has its own laws regarding what plants can and can't be sold within its borders.)

Shirey and his researchers wrote that collaboration between federal agencies, nurseries and individual plant collectors could help to preserve rare species, but it may require more regulation than exists today. "I would like to see more collaboration between public and private interests for the benefit of these endangered species," Shirey says. He points to Australia's critically endangered Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) as a good example. The tree has fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild, but botanical gardens have propagated it worldwide, and some of the money raised from selling the plants goes into conserving the wild population. A similar program could work, he suggests, with the ESA-listed star cactus (Astrophytum asterias). "Sales of cultivated star cactus are common" — with and without FWS permits — "but profits do not support wild populations like the sales of Wollemi pine." Meanwhile, the federal government spent more than $64,000 in fiscal year 2011 (pdf) to study and protect the star cactus in the wild.

Shirey and his fellow researchers indicate that private cultivation of endangered plants does more good than harm, and he points out that buyers who are aware of this issue should be able to tell if an online seller has the correct permit. "The few sellers that have the permit advertise on their website or with the listing that they do so. For example, Sunlight Gardens sells the threatened Cumberland rosemary (Conradina verticillata), and they give their FWS permit number with the listing. They also send a photocopy of their FWS permit with their order."

Gavin Shire, public affairs specialist with FWS, told me how important individuals are to plant conservation. "Some 75 percent of endangered and threatened plant species occur to some extent on private lands, and so their conservation can be significantly affected by activities in those habitats. Private landowners and other citizens can have a positive impact on rare plant conservation, and we encourage them to contact their local Fish and Wildlife Service office, and their State Natural Heritage Program to learn more about what they can do to help."

As for the sellers operating without permits, they might want to think about spending that $100 to get their affairs in order. Anyone convicted of selling endangered plants without the right permits could face a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Oh, and by the way, I asked one of the eBay sellers currently selling Pritchardia remota plants if they had the FWS permit. I still await a reply.

Photo: A young Pritchardia remota plant photographed by Forest and Kim Starr, Starr Environmental, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: