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Protecting Rare Plants of the Pacific Northwest

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

Protecting Rare Plants of the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is not only home to a diverse and verdant climate, but also to a number of industries that impact this environment. As such, dozens of plants indigenous to British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon have made their way onto the endangered species list. Sadly -- though the federal government does add at-risk plants to this list --, plants are not protected in the same way endangered animals are. Nearly fifty years after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, advocates for biological diversity and plant conservation are still struggling to secure greater protections. Given that the Living Deep team is located in Washington State and focuses on sustainability, native plant conservation is incredibly important to us. Thus, in this post we will discuss the ongoing efforts undertaken by conservationists in the PNW region. We will also list a few rare PNW native plants currently threatened by industry and a changing climate. Follow below to learn more about sensitive plants in the Pacific Northwest in honor of National Endangered Species Day.

Celebrating Nearly 50 Years of the Endangered Species Act

President Nixon -- a fierce advocate for ecological conservation and environmental protections in his early administration -- signed the National Endangered Species Act in 1973. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service brief on Endangered Species, “when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, it recognized our rich natural heritage.” The Act was intended to recognize nature as of "’esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people.’" Concern over degradation of the natural world did not gain traction in the US until the 19th century. Damage wrought by the Industrial Revolution could no longer be ignored, spurring activists to lobby for conservation efforts nationwide. In addition to recognizing the value of our natural landscape, the ESA also acknowledged “that many of our nation's native plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct.” 

National Endangered Species Day 

Decades later, the US Senate designated Endangered Species Day as a national holiday on 11 May 2006. According to Carol A. Clark in her article “U.S. Celebrating Endangered Species Day Friday” for the Los Alamos Daily Post, Congress established Endangered Species Day to encourage Americans to educate themselves about “‘threats to species, success stories in species recovery, and the opportunity to promote species conservation worldwide.’” Since the Act was passed in 1973, Clark writes that “more than 1,300 imperiled species of plants, fish and wildlife in the United States have been protected.” Similar efforts and legislation have been adopted worldwide. Though National Endangered Species Day originated in the United States, people all over the world observe the holiday each year. 

Plants Need More Protection

When we think about endangered species, mammals like the pygmy rabbit and insects like the Island Marble butterfly come to mind. Few of us think about the many species of plants whose habitats are still threatened by industry, climate change and other human activities. The US Fish & Wildlife Service notes that “all species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened.” Unfortunately, plants are rarely treated to the same quality of attention and restoration efforts as endangered animals. In their 2014 paper “Getting Plant Conservation Right (or Not): The Case of the United States” for the International Journal of Plant Sciences, Kayri Havens, et al elaborate. Havens and her colleagues write that “plants are often not fully protected by policy, their conservation is underfunded, and their importance is underappreciated.” 

Twenty Percent of All Plants Are At Risk of Extinction

The Native Plant Conservation Campaign’s Petition for Equal Protection For Plants describes plants as “‘second class citizens’” under the Endangered Species Act. It notes that the “Federal Endangered Species Act provides almost no protection for most Federally endangered and threatened plants.” NPCC’s brief claims that “although FESA protects Federally listed animals wherever they live, it allows nearly unlimited destruction of Federally listed threatened and endangered plants and their habitats outside of Federal lands.” They identify “unrestrained and poorly planned development, excessive logging, mining, and other activities” as significant threats to endangered plant species. Plant species face constant threats globally, writes Damian Carrington in his 2020 article “40% of world’s plant species at risk of extinction” for The Guardian

Referencing an international report compiled by the RBG Kew in the UK, Carrington writes that “two in five of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction as a result of the destruction of the natural world.” Quoting Stefano Padulosi -- previously a senior scientist at the Alliance of Biodiversity International --, Carrington writes that “‘the thousands of neglected plant species are the lifeline to millions of people on Earth.’” They could serve as a buffer to those “tormented by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity, and [poverty].” 

Threats to Plant Life in the Pacific Northwest

The Washington Native Plant Society’s brief “Rare Plant Conservation” explains that plants of the Pacific Northwest are primarily threatened by the “encroachment of human population, forest species (trees) or invasive nonnative species.” Sadly, water and air pollution affects “other parts of their ecosystems (such as pollinator insects, larger plants, and fungi).” This degrades native plants’ support system. Uncontrolled forest fires -- like those seen across Oregon and Washington State in September 2020 -- also threaten to wipe out native species of plants. In Oregon alone, Oregonian writer Kale Williams notes “nearly 60 species of plants that have been listed as either endangered...or threatened -- meaning they could be gone in the near future if measures aren't taken to protect them.” Habitat destruction from industrial agriculture, logging, operation of mills and oil refineries and housing development all contribute to the decline of PNW plants. 

The Importance of Protecting Native Plants

Native plants are essential to the health of our ecosystems and the safety of our habitats. As we explained in our recent post “Native Landscaping Protects Biodiversity and Property,” native plants can protect at-risk zones “from soil erosion, flooding and mudslides.” Ecosystems also benefit from the ways in which native plants stabilize soil, purify air and filter water. The USDA article “Native plants boost conservation benefits, strengthen wildlife populations” by Ciji Taylor outlines additional services native plants provide. Quoting wildlife biologist Jason Keenan, Taylor writes that native plants “‘provide food and shelter for wildlife and most importantly their structure allows for better survival rates.’” Because of this life-sustaining contribution, “fewer native plants often lead to decreasing populations of native wildlife.” 

Consequences of Failing to Protect Native Plant Species

Without native plants around to support our ecosystems, biodiversity suffers. Brandon Keim explains in his article “A diversity of plants helps stabilize ecosystems” for Anthropocene Magazine. Keim writes that “protecting areas with greater plant diversity could ensure more stable rates of carbon sequestration.” It could also “help prevent desertification or other ecological upheavals, and buffer animal populations from the privations of climate extremes.” Unfortunately, because species rely on each other to survive, threats to a single plant could endanger countless others. In their brief “Rare Plant Conservation,” the Washington Native Plant Society notes that “‘extinction of a single plant species may result in the disappearance of up to 30 other species of plants.’”

How Loss of Native Plants Could Harm the PNW

Loss of native plants in Washington State and Oregon could be particularly disastrous because of the roles they play in curbing the effects of climate change. For example, native grasses, trees and shrubs protect the Pacific Northwest coast from erosion. Coastal erosion and eradication of natural wetlands both represent major safety concerns for PNW residents. According to the UCSB brief “Native Beach Plants,” plants native to the coasts “often have deep taproots and roots at their nodes that allow them to spread, firmly anchor in the sand, and stabilize the sand against erosion.” Though the USGS National Assessment of Shoreline Change: Historical Shoreline Change Along the Pacific Northwest Coast notes that much of our shoreline erosion in the PNW has resulted from human activity, supporting native plant growth along the coast could help mitigate further degradation. 

Five Endangered Native Plant Species of the Pacific Northwest

#1 McDonald's Rockcress in Oregon

McDonald’s Rockcress is identified by bright fuchsia trumpet flowers, tall stems and succulent-like leaves. In the article “30 Oregon plant species at risk of extinction” for The Oregonian, Kale Williams identifies the McDonald’s Rockcress as one of dozens of species threatened in the state. According to Williams, the McDonald's Rockcress “prefers rocky soils at elevations below 5,900 feet in dry woods or on brush-covered slopes.” Though it is also native to Northern California, the McDonald’s Rockcress plant is “only found in the Siskiyou mountains of Curry and Josephine counties” of Oregon. 

Historically, McDonald’s Rockcress has been threatened by gold, copper and silver mining activities in Oregon. Today, the plant is still under threat from “mining in the mineral-rich areas where it grows, as well as road maintenance and over-collection.” Unfortunately for the McDonald’s Rockcress, Josephine, Baker and Jackson counties have the most active mines in Oregon.

#2 Northern Wormwood in Oregon and Washington

The perennial plant Northern Wormwood also faces extinction in Oregon. USFWS’s Species Fact Sheet on Northern Wormwood notes that the plant is currently endangered in Oregon and is a candidate for the list in Washington State. Though native to Oregon, the plant can also be found in small areas of “Klickitat and Grant Counties [in] Washington.” The USFWS Fact Sheet notes that “highway construction and riprapping of long reaches of the Columbia River resulted in the extirpation of historical populations” in Washington State. For those on the lookout, the Northern Wormwood can be identified by its “taproot and basal leaves crowded in a basal rosette.”

In the article “30 Oregon plant species at risk of extinction” for The Oregonian, Kale Williams writes that the Northern Wormwood plant “grows only in basalt, compacted cobble and sand on the banks of the Columbia River” in Oregon. Sadly, Williams writes that scientists believe Northern Wormwood has been entirely eradicated from Oregon. Historical threats to the plant in Oregon were “water diversion due to dams, agricultural development and competition from non-native species.”

#3 Golden Paintbrush in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia

In his article “Conservation of Golden Paintbrush” for Landscope Washington, Washington Natural Heritage Program botanist Joe Arnett describes the Golden Paintbrush plant. Arnett writes that Golden Paintbrush “was federally listed as threatened in 1997 under the Endangered Species Act.” According to the National Park Service, the Golden Paintbrush plant remains on the Washington State Endangered species and Federally Threatened species lists. 

Though it once “ranged into southern Washington and the Willamette Valley in Oregon,” today the Golden Paintbrush can only be found at the “east end of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and from a single site near Olympia, Washington.” Only eleven populations remain in North America, but “extensive efforts are now underway to establish experimental populations in the wild.” Thankfully, Golden Paintbrush “produces abundant seed, and grows well in cultivation,” so botanists and conservationists are hopeful.

#4 Umtanum Desert Buckwheat in Washington Northwest Native Plants

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The WildEarthGuardians.org fact sheet on the Umtanum Desert Buckwheat notes that this Pacific Northwest native plant “survived the birth of the atomic age, making its home in what is now Hanford Reach National Monument.” According to the fact sheet, individual buckwheat plants “may live more than 100 years, judging from the growth rings in their woody stems.” Today, Umtanum Desert Buckwheat plants in Washington State are threatened by both wildfires and firefighting. Wildfires frequently burn in the Hanford Reach National monument, placing Umtanum Desert Buckwheat at risk because it grows amongst “highly flammable invasive plants like cheatgrass.” Other human activity -- such as “trespassing by off-road vehicles and hikers” -- also threatens the native plant.

According to the press release “Endangered Species Act Protection Affirmed for Two Washington Plants” written by Noah Greenwald and disseminated by the Center for Biological Diversity, as of 2013 Umtanum Desert Buckwheat could only be found in Washington’s Hanford Reach National Monument. Since 1999, federal scientists have fought to classify the plant as endangered. Finally, in 2013 “the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reaffirmed that the best available science shows that Umtanum desert buckwheat...deserves federal protection and designated critical habitat.” 

#5 Showy Stickseed in Washington State

According to the University of Washington School of Environmental & Forest Sciences, “Showy stickseed (Hackelia venusta) is one of Washington’s rarest plants and is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.” It was first listed in 2002 after beginning to disappear from its home in the cliffs and sandy slopes of Chelan County, Washington. UW’s fact sheet on the plant notes that “this species appears to prefer a specific soil environment consisting of unstable sandy materials on steep slopes.” Professor Darlene Zabowski -- a UW soil scientist -- is currently working alongside her graduate students to characterize “the soil environment and how showy stickseed utilizes it, including rooting depth, structure, and associations with mycorrhizae.” They hope that this information will better aid them in developing a plan to repopulate Showy Stickseed in habitable areas of Washington State. 

PNW Organizations Protecting Native Plants in Washington and Oregon 

Those interested in contributing their time or resources to rare native plant conservation in Washington State and Oregon should consider reaching out to the following organizations. In Washington, the Botanic Gardens at the University of Washington offer opportunities for volunteers through Rare Care and the Washington Natural Heritage Program. Washingtonians can volunteer for the UW Botanic Gardens as a rare plant monitor, collecting data on rare plant populations across the state. 

They can also volunteer in the Rare Seed Vault at the Gardens. Washington citizens might also join their local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society and contribute to their Conservation Committee. Oregonians can contribute to the Leach Botanical Garden, join Friends of Trees and volunteer through the Native Plant Society of Oregon. For more information, consider the brief “10 Easy Things You Can Do To Save Endangered Species” from Endangered.org. Together, we can protect endangered species, threatened species and critical habitats throughout the Pacific Northwest.


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