This is part 2 of a two-part series. Read part 1: “Rare Wildflower vs. Mining Company.”
In part 1 of this series, I told how Tiehn’s Buckwheat (Eriogonum tiehmii) is a rare species found only on ten acres of land in Nevada and how its existence is threatened by the mining activities of Ioneer, an Australian Company. I also discussed the efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to save the species by petitioning the federal government and the state of Nevada to give it legal protection. Additionally, I provided information for the reader to support the Center’s efforts.
What I didn’t mention is what Ioneer is hoping to extract at the site: Lithium carbonate and boric acid.
Though a variety of industrial applications utilize lithium carbonate, demand is rising primarily due to its use in batteries, especially for electric vehicles. In other words, Ioneer’s operation could be considered part of the “green” or “clean” energy industry. Indeed, they make use of one of the monikers themselves: “Lithium is a strategic element linked directly to high technology and clean energy. It has been described as the new oil as it is a key component for batteries fueling the electric vehicle revolution.”
But “green” and “clean” don’t mean “no impact.” All extractive activities have destructive impacts on the natural environment, including lithium mining. Some would argue that fossil fuels are the worst, and that anything is better—that a lesser cost is preferable to a greater cost. Yet in this case, what is the cost?
That depends on one’s perspective, doesn’t it? For Tiehm’s Buckwheat, the cost might well be its entire existence as a species on this planet. So from that perspective, no cost could be greater.
Some people might be willing to shrug that off, but not me, and I am not alone.
Nature is more important than our comforts. The survival of a species ranks higher than our needs (such as we think they are). There are places we need to draw a line and this is one of them.
Yet, the efforts by CBD to grant this plant legal protection might fail, and Ioneer might move beyond the exploratory stage to develop its project in full. In this case, the extinction of Tiehm’s Buckwheat is highly likely.
One possibility is to provide Tiehm’s Buckwheat with a new home outside of Ioneer’s project area. Seeds could be collected and sown nearby. Plants could be rescued from the path of the bulldozer and transplanted.
In scientific circles, this is called “assisted migration,” “managed relocation” or “assisted colonization.” It’s most often discussed in the context of Climate Change, which is putting an increasing number of species at risk at an accelerating rate.
In this particular instance, Tiehm’s Buckwheat grows exclusively in a particular soil type called “channery” but there are other patches of this soil in the immediate area, as noted in CBD’s petition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. (See page 10.) Couldn’t those areas host newly seeded or transplanted patches?
When I spoke on the phone with Patrick Donnelly, Nevada State Director of the CBD, I asked him about this possibility. He reacted with immediate disdain: “That is not an acceptable solution. That is not something we would ever accept. I think the reverse is true. The reverse is that there’s lots of channery soil so if they want to mine channery soil that doesn’t have Tiehm’s Buckwheat on it [they should]. I think that’s the framing we would use.”
Assisted migration is a controversial subject for some scientists, and clearly Donnelly and the CBD oppose it. For the case against it, I turn to Anthony Ricciardi and Daniel Simberloff with their opinion piece, “Assisted colonization is not a viable conservation strategy,” which was published by Trends in Ecology and Evaluation in 2009:
“Even if preceded by careful risk assessment, such action is likely to produce myriad unintended and unpredictable consequences. Accurate risk assessment is impeded by contingency: the impacts of introduced species vary over time and space under the influence of local environmental variables, interspecific interactions and evolutionary change… Given this lack of predictive power, assisted colonization is tantamount to ecological roulette and should probably be rejected as a sound conservation strategy by the precautionary principle.”
One of their biggest concerns (which is shared by most other opponents) is that native species taken out of their home territories will become “invasive” in their new ones and become threats themselves. (We will leave aside here that the label and concept of “invasive” is itself problematic.)
In a following issue of the same publication, researchers Dov F. Sax, Katherine F. Smith, and Andrew R. Thompson responded with a letter entitled, “Managed relocation: a nuanced evaluation is needed.”
They outline three reasons they disagree:
First, the precautionary principle is not a stand-alone reason to rule out managed relocation. It states that ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’ In the context of managed relocation, ‘precaution’ cuts both ways, as a motivation to avoid relocations that might cause unwanted harm and as a motivation to act before a species is driven extinct by climate change…
Second, we know more about the impacts of species invasions than Ricciardi and Simberloff suggest, particularly with respect to species extinction… [E]xtinctions are generally caused by predation as opposed to competition; there are no documented cases to our knowledge where competition from exotic species has been the sole causal factor for the extinction of any native species…
Third, because extinctions are permanent and irreversible, using managed relocation to reduce extinctions at the cost of changing the composition and functioning of ecosystems is a trade-off that some managers might be willing to make. This will be particularly true if most changes that result from relocations are small, and if those that are large are not necessarily detrimental. [my emphasis]
These are just two published pieces out of many on the subject. (I list more at the end.) Despite the iron-fisted insistence of some of those opposed, there is no consensus on the subject of assisted migration in the scientific community at this time. Moreover, given the intensifying effects of Climate Change the topic is sure to be discussed more frequently and in wider circles as time goes on, and more and more is at stake.
Returning to the case of Tiehm’s Buckwheat, the managed migration that makes most sense would be into the neighboring areas of the same soil type, which would be over short distances and into small areas. Donnelly mentioned these spots: “It’s a little bit of a mystery as to where and why Tiehm’s Buckwheat grows because there’s lots and lots of channery soil out there that doesn’t have Tiehm’s Buckwheat on it.”
In their petition to the Feds, the CBD addresses this mystery by stating that “there are other unknown factors which determine suitable habitat, since most of the channery soil outcrops do not contain occupied habitat.”
One possible explanation of the mystery is that Tiehm’s Buckwheat is a very new species, so new that it hasn’t moved into these areas yet. I had been wondering about this possibility and when I asked Donnelly if we knew how old the species is, he said no. Genetic research can answer that question, but Donnelly told me that the plant has not been studied to that depth yet.
Recall that as recently as 12,000 years ago, the Great Basin—the region where this plant is found—was a very different place: there were lakes and wetlands and a very different mix of flora and fauna. The current conditions are themselves novel on a longer timeline and are still changing. (The expansion of the range of the Pinyon Pine in the region over just the last 40,000 years is well-documented.) How we found things is not how they always were, and how they would stay if we didn’t interfere.
Perhaps, then, it’s not the case that the habitat isn’t right for Tiehm’s Buckwheat but rather that Tiehm’s simply hasn’t gotten there yet. If so, then a human introduction would be nothing more than an acceleration in the flow.
Would we be “playing God”? Maybe. But that’s what we’re doing when we bring in a mining operation and wipe a species out. It’s also what we’re doing if we stand aside and do nothing while it happens.
There are two very real invasions affecting Tiehm’s Buckwheat here. The first, obviously, is the introduction of the mining company (regardless of its national origin) with the horrific environmental destruction it will wreak. [Photos.] The second is the imposition of a human dogma that would relegate the plant to extinction in the interest of not interfering.
But it’s too late to not interfere. The mining company is already doing that. Collectively, our hands are already dirty. We’re already “in.” We don’t have the luxury of talking about this like we’re not part of it. We are. Right now. Shutting down the conversation about an attempted rescue before we can even have it is not only shirking our responsibility—it’s pretending that we don’t have any. And that, my friends, is some ugly denial.
One thing became very clear to me after looking into the case of Tiehm’s Buckwheat, and it’s this: The task of safeguarding the life of this beautiful planet cannot be left to scientists alone. Indeed, the task will fail if we do so. Let us thank them for their contributions: for their surveys, their data and their models, all of which can play an important role. But when it’s life-or-death decision time, other people are essential: those who love the living world; those who feel the spirit of the land in their bones; those who can hear the voices of plants. Are some of those people also scientists? I have no doubt, but we need to cast the net wider to begin with.
A final note: Independent action could be taken on behalf of our endangered friend. The locations are known. (Multiple maps are included in the Federal petition.) Loving humans exist out there with knowledge of how to sustainably harvest and responsibly sow wild seeds. I know because I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of them. On occasion, I’ve been one. For such individuals, permission from people is irrelevant; only the blessing of nature is important.
Guess which motivation ultimately serves the planet better?