The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally agreed last week to propose listing two rare plants found only in the Virgin Islands on its Endangered Species List – 13 years after the listing was first proposed.
The two plants are St. Croix native Agave eggersiana and Solanum conocarpum, a St. John native. These plants are found only in those locations, and the likelihood of their listing as endangered species has local scientists cheering.
"Yeah!" was what Renata Platenberg, a wildlife biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department, had to say.
Rafe Boulon, chief of resource management at V.I. National Park on St. John, said that as endangered species, the plants will get more protection than if they weren’t on the list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of Interior, will make final decisions on the listings on Agave eggersiana by Sept. 17, 2010, and on Solanum conocarpum by Feb. 15, 2011, thanks to a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity.
"A settlement doesn’t guarantee an outcome, but it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t list them," said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity’s press release, the plants initially lost their dry scrub thicket habitat in the intense deforestation for cotton and sugar cane cultivation on both islands. Now they face the additional threats of residential and tourism-related development, grazing by feral goats and the practice of burning off vegetation.
"Listing these critically imperiled plants under the Endangered Species Act means that finally we can implement a recovery plan to reintroduce the plants into suitable habitat in the wild and protect the plants’ critical habitat," Lopez said.
While the Center for Biological Diversity indicated that Agave eggersiana may have disappeared entirely, Platenberg said that wasn’t quite so.
"There are a couple of plants left in a top secret location," she said, adding that even she doesn’t know where they are.
Agave eggersiana can be cultivated, but the point of the Endangered Species List is to protect plants in their natural habitat, Platenberg said.
Agave eggersiana is described as a robust, perennial herb native only to hillsides and plains in the eastern dry districts of the island of St. Croix. It has large funnel-shaped or tubular-shaped flowers and can grow from 16 to 23 feet tall. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, much of the plants’ remaining suitable habitat is on private land slated for residential development.
"Survival of the species may now depend on propagating the plants in nurseries, then reintroducing them," Lopez said.
There are only about 220 known plants of Solanum conocarpum, including 156 plants on park land at Nanny Point. The other 60 plants are on private land.
Solanum conocarpum is a thornless, flowering shrub that may reach more than nine feet in height and is found in dry, deciduous forest on St. John.
A project at the park to propagate and reintroduce Solanum conocarpum into areas within the park began in 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity noted in its press release. But the plants are threatened by park management practices such as trail and facility maintenance. Additionally, feral pigs, feral goats, Key deer, and donkeys threaten the plants. The plants on private land are at risk from residential and tourism development.
The small number of remaining Solanum conocarpum plants is a problem, said the Center for Biological Diversity, because the plant is "functionally dioecious – having male and female flowers on different plants – and may require higher numbers in order to reproduce effectively."
Local Fish and Wildlife first filed for inclusion on the Endangered Species List in 1996. Boulon, who then worked for Fish and Wildlife, and then-Director Barbara Kojas made the initial application.
In 1998, two years after the petition was filed, the federal Fish and Wildlife decided that science supported protection for the plants and promised to make a decision within nine months, the Center for Biological Diversity indicated.
With no decision forthcoming by 2004, the Center for Biological Diversity sued. In 2006, federal Fish and Wildlife decided that neither species should be listed as endangered. The Center for Biological Diversity again filed suit in 2008 challenging federal Fish and Wildlife’s finding. This week’s settlement appears to bring that case to conclusion by listing both species for protection.