Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Moloka'i mint, perhaps saved by the endangered species process

The listing process for endangered species, is just paperwork—it has no real effect, right?

Wrong, in the case of the very latest member of the federal endangered species list.

There, the attention has perhaps already saved the plant from extinction.

The species is a little Moloka'i mint called Phyllostegia hispida. It has never been common, and has no known common name.

(Image: The mint in flower, with unidentified butterfly. Credit: Bill Garnett. Wiliwili Hawaiian Plants, Moloka'i, Hawaii.)

It was officially added to the U.S. list of endangered species today, March 17, 2009.

But it might not have made it this far if the attention of being a candidate endangered species hadn't launched an effort to protect it.

For most of the 1900s, only 10 individuals were known, all from the forested mountains of east Moloka'i, but they all died out. Scientists figured P. hispida was a goner.

This little plant isn't the kind of mint you put in a julep, and it doesn't have a minty smell, but it's a relative of the fragrant mints. It's a vine with lots of branches—kind of sprawling and messy. It has floppy, rough-haired leaves and clusters of white flowers, according to the proposed listing notice last year in the Federal Register. The listing notice contains virtually all the information known about the plant.

In 2005, botanists searching Kamakou, a preserve operated by The Nature Conservancy, found two of them growing in the wild. And in the last two years, a total of 24 of them have been found, all but one in Kamakou Preserve, and the remaining plant in the state's Pu'u Ali'i Natural Area Reserve.

Cuttings were taken and carefully rooted, and the plantlets were re-established in Kamakou.

There are now 238 plants growing in the wild.

But there's still so little known about it that scientists aren't sure how best to protect it, other than growing it from cuttings and planting it in the wild. One assumes that protection from feral pigs and non-native weeds are important. And keeping an eye on it for disease or other problems.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has a year to designate the critical habitat for the species, but based on what's known about the plant, the places where it grows—in high Moloka'i at elevations between 2,300 and 4,200 feet—are pretty much already protected by the Conservancy and the state.

But one benefit of being identified as a plant in peril is that more folks are paying attention to it. And that may be the key to its survival.

“A variety of organizations such as the University of Hawaii’s Lyon Arboretum on O‘ahu, the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua‘i, and Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Moloka‘i are propagating plants that may be used for outplanting into suitable habitat.

“Land managers from Hawai’i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources have fenced some plants to protect them from feral ungulates, and The Nature Conservancy continues to control feral pigs and alien plants within the Kamakou Preserve,” said the Fish and Wildlife Service in a press release.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

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