Rare V.I. Plants Denied Protection Under Federal Endangered Species Act

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Agave eggersiana

Two rare Virgin Islands plants were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to a March 7 announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

The Agave eggersiana, a native plant of St. Croix, and the Solanum conocarpum (marrón bacora) “do not warrant protection as endangered under the ESA,” said USFWS, in response to a petition from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR).

The Agave eggersiana is described as “a robust, perennial herb that can grow from 16 to 23 feet tall,” according to USFWS. “Its flowers are large and funnel or tubular shaped.”

The plant was becoming extremely rare, said Dr. Barbara Kojis, director of the DPNR Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Plant Extinct in Wild
“The agave is a St. Croix plant that was largely not found in the wild,” she said. “Botanical Gar-dens was passing them out to people so they wouldn’t become extinct. We wanted to put them on the endangered species list to ensure that they don’t become extinct.”

USFWS may not have given the agave protection as an endangered species because it is likely no longer found in the wild, Kojis added.

“I’m not even sure that it’s found in the wild anymore,” she said. “I think Fish and Wildlife has certain restrictions as far as declaring a plant endangered.”

“Maybe if a plant is not found in the wild anymore, it doesn’t fall under a candidate for endangered species,” Kojis added. Local ecologist Dr. Gary Ray said he was surprised by USFWS’s decision.

“This is of great concern,” he said. “The Agave is one example of a species in need of listing. You can’t get more endangered than having it extinct in the wild.”

Ray is currently attempting to save the Agave plant by growing them in his garden.

“I am trying to grow them and send them to other botanical gardens in the tropics, so that we can keep the species alive,” he said. “When we’re starting to do stuff like that, the plant is in serious trouble.”

The Solanum conocarpum is “a thornless flowering shrub which may reach more than nine feet in height,” according to USFWS.

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Solanum conocarpum flower

Specific to St. John
It is a rare plant that is found only on St. John.

“When we originally requested that it be placed on the endangered species list, there were only two in the wild that we knew of—one in the National Park and one on private property,” said Kojis.

“Subsequently, they’ve found about 200 plants — many on private property, and some in the park as well,” she said.

The plant is not surviving well, Kojis added.

“The seedlings don’t appear to be surviving well on that plant,” she said. “They tend to get smothered by sediment and rocks that come down the hillsides where they are found after heavy rains.”

More than 95 percent of solanum conocarpum plants found on St. John are on private property, according to Ray.

One land owner donated his property to the V.I. National Park’s trust, which conveyed it to the National Park Service, Ray added.

“I am working with the former land owner and the national park to make sure that the conservation program there is up to snuff,” he said. “Solanum is in serious condition. This is intensive care, because genetically, it’s very vulnerable.”

The ESA provides protection for endangered plants by establishing critical habitats, which include all areas necessary for their recovery and survival.

“The Service made a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information in making this finding,” according to a USFWS statement. “The agency also consulted with plant experts, including those most familiar with the species, and other governmental agencies.”

There was no evidence that either plant warranted protection, according to ESA criteria.

Insufficient Information, No Evidence
“The Service’s review found insufficient information to determine the true status of either plant in the wild and a lack of sufficient evidence of which threats, if any, affect the species,” according to USFWS. “There is no evidence of serious threats to the species from overutilization for commercial, recreational, or educational purposes, nor from inadequacies in existing regulatory mechanisms. There are also no data to show that destruction or curtailment of the species’ habitat or range, disease or predation, or other natural or man-made factors threaten the plants.”

Ray, who was consulted by USFWS regarding the status of the two plants, said that he was sure that the two plants would be added to the endangered species list.

“I was interviewed by the guy that actually did the work, and when that happened I thought that this was a sure bet,” he said. “Something about the conversation didnt quite go right. He seemed to be kind of skeptical.”

Insult to ESA
Ray said that he believes USFWS made a big mistake by not giving protection to the two rare Virgin Islands plants.

“It’s a major insult to all the framers of the Endangered Species Act,” he said. It was a mistake, all right. I thought it was a done deal for these two species.”

USFWS said it will continue to monitor the plants and their habitats, and will accept additional information regarding their status at any time.

Ray will continue to fight for protection for the plants.

“We need to find a way to fight back,” he said. “This is a major piece of news locally. It threw me for a loop.”

Any new information or questions regarding USFWS’s finding may be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Road 301, Km. 5.1, P.O. Box 491, Boquerón, Puerto Rico 00622.