This is part 1 of a two-part series.
In a remote corner of Nevada is a wildflower that grows nowhere else on earth. Named "Tiehm's Buckwheat" (Eriogonum tiehmii), it has been found on only ten acres of public land in the Silver Peak Range of Esmerelda County, and is virtually unknown except to a handful of botanists. Tragically, it is at risk of extinction due to mining activities that have just started in its habitat.
Tiehm's Buckwheat is a "low, spreading, perennial herb that forms a dense mat" [source]. Its blossoms are globes, one to a stem, made up of dozens of individual flowers, each with half a dozen bluntly-pointed petals arranged around a clutch of pollen-bearing anthers and a single stigma (which are the male and female sex parts, respectively). The basic shape of this inflorescence is common in the genus, Eriogonum, which grows all over North America, though with the most diversity in the arid western lands. The name is Greek for "woolly angle" and refers to the fuzzy-looking flowers that grow at the stem joints of some species in the genus (but not this one).
In 1985, E. tiehmii was officially described in the journal, The Great Basin Naturalist, Vol. 45, No. 2, by noted Eriogonum authority James L. Reveal who wrote: "This remarkable species, named for Arnold ('Jerry') Tiehm, may be immediately recognized by its large, distinctly lobed involucres, cream-colored flowers, and stipitate-glandular tepals. In this latter feature, Eriogonum tiehmii is unique."
I'm personally quite fond of wildflowers in the genus Eriogonum, having met many of them in California and Oregon, so this story struck me with a particular poignancy. Perhaps my favorites in the genus are in the Mojave Desert, where like fireworks they take myriad forms in various colors: red, yellow, orange, pink and white. Pollinators are also attracted to plants in the genus. A patch of California Buckwheat (E. fasciculatum), for example, will be at the center of a veritable cloud of buzzing, hovering and fluttering insects during flowering season.
Eriogonum is a North American genus, so its many individual species were new to the European settler-colonialists, who either ignored them or swept them aside as they encountered them; since they are poor as fodder for cattle, they were not viewed as useful. By contrast, Native Americans utilized many of the species for food and medicine. Currently, the genus has an enthusiastic following among certain plant geeks; enough, in fact, to support a dues-paying national organization, the Eriogonum Society. (No offense is meant by "plant geek;" I count myself as one.)
Tragically, Eriogonum tiehmii might not be with us for much longer. The region where it lives contains minerals that an Australian resource-extraction company called Ioneer intends to exploit for mining operations. If Ioneer's plans are fully implemented, the entirety of Tiehm's Buckwheat current range could very well be destroyed.
I was alerted to this plant's plight by a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity [CBD], which announced that they had submitted an emergency petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on October 7th seeking protection for the plant under the Endangered Species Act. The CPD also submitted a petition to the Nevada Division of Forestry, which has the authority to protect plants that are "threatened with extinction."
I spoke with Patrick Donnelly, Nevada State Director of the CBD, who filed both petitions. Donnelly has been on site and seen Tiehm's Buckwheat in person, so I was grateful to have the opportunity to talk to him. He told me that the damage is already starting, just with the exploratory phase of Ioneer's project:
"The exploration activities themselves are having significant impacts, as I detail in the petition: the road-building, the well-pad drilling, the invasive species they're bringing in. We're talking about such a tiny population, that just the disturbance of exploration could be enough to wipe it out" That's why did an emergency petition; because we feel this is an emergency with this exploration activity happening right now."
If the plant were to be listed by the Feds or by Nevada, then the CBD (or other parties) could seek to curtail Ioneer's activities, in part or in whole. Donnelly believes they have a better chance of success with the state, which he described as "more nimble" than the Feds.
"Federal listing takes a very very very long time. Years and years and years. Decades, sometimes. And the plant doesn't have that long, so that's why we're pursuing state listing simultaneously" The state of Nevada's plant act is a powerful law. This plant can be saved if people take action. So, that's what we're hoping to do" I think the state could list this plant tomorrow if they wanted to."
I encourage everyone reading this to contact the state of Nevada on behalf of Tiehm's Buckwheat. See information below.
One might ask: What's one wildflower? Especially one as obscure as this? Surely, no one will miss it if its gone?
To which I would answer: All life is interconnected and an injury to one is an injury to all. Whether we consciously know it or not, with each extinction of a species and with every razing of an ecosystem, something inside of us dies. We are less, each of us, with every loss. Technological society mutes our senses to this pain, but it is still there.