What do the the Polar Bear, the Pika, the Sierra Nevada Red Fox and Thiem’s buckwheat all have in common?

At first glance they don’t have much at all in common, but all four could be listed as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (or what tattered remains are left of it).

Polar bears and pikas suffer from habitat loss due climate change. The Sierra Nevada Red Fox suffers from reduction in quiet habitat by relentless human intrusion. Thiem’s buckwheat? Might just be human ignorance.

It’s easy to get excited about saving large charismatic animals such as the polar bear. While Thiem’s buckwheat could be considered furry, it’s not charismatic. Not too many people will get excited about a small, low-to-the-ground plant with non-descript grayish leaves. In the summer, Thiem’s buckwheat blooms with beautiful yellow and orange ball like flowers on a stalk a few inches long, but most folks still might miss it, and hardly any people could identify it.

Grady photographing buckwheat damage

Professor Ben Grady photographing buckwheat damage

One person who gets excited about buckwheat is Ben Grady, the president of the Eriogonum Society. But at the moment, he has a look of dismay on his face. Grady is visibly upset, perplexed as he surveys the damage around him. Seven of us are visiting the North end of Fish Lake Valley, a bleached bone of a landscape eroded by the wind and dried by a relentless sun. We have climbed to over 6000 feet elevation, and the September heat still sucks the moisture from the body. Shade is a non-existent dream.

A beautiful view down Fish Lake Valley

A beautiful view down Fish Lake Valley

Though this land is harsh, Thiem’s Buckwheat has managed to carve an existence for itself in soils high in boron in lithium — soils which other desert plants shun. Undisturbed individual plants can thrive in these otherwise toxic soils for up to 100 years. But the entire population of this particular buckwheat variety covers less than a couple of square miles. It only lives at the head of Fish Lake Valley, and only grows in this unique soil.

Boron and lithium rich soils only grow certain plants

Boron and lithium rich soils only grow certain plants

For ages Thiem’s buckwheat had eked out a life in wide spaces empty of humans other the odd hunter in the fall looking for deer or sheep, and more recently, the occasional 4×4 driver roving through. Then came our search for renewable energy: deep cycle batteries from powerful movers and shakers such as Tesla. A relatively sudden lithium boom has gripped the world. Most lithium is extracted from concentrated brines taken via bore holes from the many ancient lake beds and playas of the American West. Rock deposits of lithium are scarce but in 2016 an Australian Company, Ioneer, identified a significant deposit of these rocks in Fish Lake Valley at Rhyolite Ridge. Ioneer is proposing locating a mine and processing facility near Fish Lake for a 26-year period. Tesla’s GigaFactory is nearby in Reno.

The world demands lithium. But then there is this rare buckwheat in this beautiful valley…

We are walking with Ben around the proposed Ioneer site, along with Patrick Donnelly from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Naomi Fraga, director of conservation at California Botanic Garden, a writer and photographer from the Wall Street Journal, and a couple of other interested hangers-on like me.

Patrick, Ben and Naomi are visibly upset that 40% of the world’s population of the Thiem’s buckwheat has been uprooted, chopped out and left to wither on the surface. This happened sometime between late July and early September in between visits from botanists and other surveyors. Here is a public letter outlining their findings (PDF).

WHODUNNIT

The big question for me is who did it.

Ioneer and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM, who administers the public lands where the site is) say squirrels did it.

Disturbed soil and deat Thiem's buckwheat

Disturbed soil and deat Thiem’s buckwheat

Hole near a removed Thiem's buckwheat plant

Hole near a removed Thiem’s buckwheat plant

An overturned dead buckwheat plant, severed at the root

An overturned dead buckwheat plant, severed at the root

The CBD is not so sure and might blame humans (if they didn’t see the damage as a distraction from their ultimate goal of getting the buckwheat listed as an endangered species). Tempers run hot in mining-friendly Nevada. Opposition to the mine could well inflame opinions in rural Esmeralda County where perhaps someone has just foolishly decided the best thing to do is to eliminate the linebacker flower species. This would not be the first time such a vandalism has happened.

The botanists look though hand lens taking photographs looking for indicative chisel marks that a rodents’s teeth might leave. I also look. There’s nothing obvious to the naked eye, so photos are taken for further analysis. If it were squirrels, where are they now and why have they never done this before? Some of the plants appear to have been replaced in the holes from which they came. Very tidy squirrels. Scientists will take a step back and refrain from the quick jump to blaming people. They will hedge their words as they apply scientific methodology.

The bottom line remains

After thousands of years surviving in the desert the Thiem’s lost 40% of its known population — seemingly overnight. There may be even fewer surviving plants after the winter has passed. The CBD is petitioning for protection of the buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act, and suggest fencing and surveillance. This marked reduction in the number of individual plants only pushes Thiem’s closer to extinction. If the human goal was to kill them off, it has failed, making an Endangered listing all the more possible.

Patrick says CBD is not trying to stop the mine. The CBD wants to protect Thiems buckwheat from extinction. Thiem’s buckwheat only grows where the mine is proposed. Maybe CBD’s wish and an elaborate mining operation are incompatible. Maybe we cannot have both. Anyway, in the current heightened political environment, a compromise seems unlikely.

A suggestion arises that the entire population and its requisite soils be transplanted somewhere safe nearby. This might be possible with an extremely determined team, but according to Patrick and Naomi, is more likely to fail. Even if it succeeded, then what would we have? An ecosystem is the sum of its parts. The simple removal of one part is pulling on the thread that unravels the whole. Isn’t the history of the West also a history of uprooting a “troublesome” native population and putting it somewhere where it cannot impede “progress?” How has this worked for us, with what in hindsight is clearly genocide and with our current violent unrest? With hubris, humans continue to play God, deciding what lives and what does not, and where. If the Ioneer mine isn’t built in Fish Lake, it will be built somewhere else, perhaps a place equally delicate, and perhaps a place with fewer people with the resources to deliberate and fight if necessary. We do tend to put our trash in other peoples’ yards, don’t we…

I will admit a conflict here. My off-grid home is solar-powered and and that energy stored in a Lithium-Phosphate- Iron (LiPO4) battery. I also use lithium batteries in nearly all my small electronic devices. An electric vehicle would also be great to reduce our dependence upon fossil fuels.

But in a world where we eliminate up to 150 plant and animal species a day can we afford to give up and cast the Thiem’s into oblivion? At which point are species which humans depend on for survival going extinct? Could Thiem’s be a keystone? All I’m sure of is once extinct, they are never coming back.

The Takeaway

Looking at what remains of the small Thiem’s buckwheat fields, it was difficult to decide definitively what had happened there. It was an odd thing to see how the soil was disturbed and how some flowers were killed but not others. If the destruction of these plants is human-caused then those people deserve to know they have quite possibly adversely affected the course of history. They have quite possibly ruined the chances of survival for that plant and whatever else depends on it. Could animals that depend on that plant hold the answer to an unanswered question? Could that flower hold the cure to a disease? How to survive environmental toxins? May those individuals not get sick with that disease, but may they live long enough to see the flower deemed worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

For me though there need not be some human use for the Thiems. It is here. It is alive. It is a part of the ecosystem. Let it continue to be so.

Smokey Nevada view to the Southwest

Smokey Nevada view to the Southwest