Friday, February 22, 2008

Endangermint: A little recognition for an exceedingly rare plant

It may be the rarest plant in Hawai'i—so rare that at times biologists thought it might already be extinct—and the federal administration has concluded it ought to be placed on the federal endangered species list.

(In this NASA photograph taken from the International Space Station, Moloka'i is the island to the upper left, and Phyllostegia hispida has only been found in the mountains under the clouds on its right—east—side in this image.)

The plant is Phyllostegia hispida, and it's found only in the wet forests of the mountains of east Moloka'i. It grows in a botanical wonderland, among the 'ōlapa with their trembling leaves, spreading hāpu'u tree ferns, the Hawaiian hydrangea kanawao, the native raspberry 'ākala, the red-tinted ama'u ferns.

There, rooting pigs appear to be the most serious threat to the plant, although its very rarity is also a concern. Alien grasses and potential competitors like the invasive clidemia and other weeds are also a threat.

The plant presumably has always been somewhat rare. It has no native name. It's a member of the mint family, but is a mint without the aroma.

National conservation organizations are making something of a big deal about the proposed listing, in part because it is such a rare event for the Fish and Wildlife Service under the current federal administration.

Said the Center for Biological Diversity: “The agency has not protected a single new species in 650 days, which includes the entire tenure of Dirk Kempthorne as Secretary of the Interior and is by far the longest period without a new species being protected since the landmark federal law (The endangered species act) was passed.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service in the Federal Register on Feb. 19, 2008, announced its proposal to list Phyllostegia hispida as an endangered.. The agency will accept public comments on the filing through April 21. The Hawai'i contact is Patrick Leonard, a field supervisor with the service at its Honolulu office, 300 Ala Moana Boulevard, Box 50088, Honolulu HI 96850, telephone 808-792-9400.

The filing describes the exceedingly rare plant as “a loosely spreading, many-branched vine that often forms large tangled masses.” It has six to eight white flowers in a cluster.

Biologists have managed to collect seeds and samples, and living material is being maintained in the Lyon Arboretum. On several occasions, botanists believed the last plants had died out in the wild, but over time, they would find a handful of individuals growing, generally within the Kamakou Preserve of The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i. Whenever a plant has been found, it's been fenced to protect it from pigs and other threats. Two dozen captively grown specimens have been planted in the wild within the past year, although previous outplanting efforts have not been particularly successful.

The Phyllostegia hispida has been a candidate for endangered species status since 1997, and in 2004, the Center for Biological Diversity included it on a list of 225 plants and animals it petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect with listing as endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service, in its Federal Register filing, said it has been working on a number of plants, including ones with higher priority than Phyllostegia hispida, but eventually had the resources available to launch the listing of the species.

One of the problems for the species is that so little is known about it.

“The poor reproduction and survivorship...clearly indicate that the current conditions are less than optimal for this species, although we do not yet fully understand the specific mechanisms that are undermining its viability,” the service said in its notice.

In part because of that uncertainty, the service is not proposing the designation of critical habitat for the mint.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate