Groups to US: Protect Nevada flower from mine or face court

FILE - In this 2020 photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity is a Tiehm's buckwheat near the site of a proposed mine in Nevada. Conservationists who won a court order against U.S. wildlife officials in the same dispute two years ago say they intend to sue them again for failing to protect a Nevada wildflower, a Tiehm's buckwheat proposed for endangered species listing, where a lithium mine is planned. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists who won a court order against U.S. wildlife officials say they'll sue them again for failing to protect a Nevada wildflower whose last remaining habitat could be destroyed by a lithium mine.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal 60-day notice this week of its intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for missing this month's deadline to finalize its year-old proposal to add Tiehm’s buckwheat to the list of endangered species.

The service concluded in its Oct. 7, 2021, proposal that the desert wildflower — which is only known to exist where the mine is planned halfway between Reno and Las Vegas — was in danger of going extinct.

Under federal law, the agency had one year to issue a final rule listing the 6-inch-tall (15-centimeter-tall) flower with yellow blooms, or explain why it had decided against taking such action.

“Tiehm's buckwheat is staring down the barrel of extinction and it can't wait one more day for Endangered Species Act protection,” said Patrick Donnelly, the center's Great Basin director.

“The service is dragging its feet on protecting this rare wildflower and apparently needs the threat of legal action to do it's job," he said.

Agency officials refused to explain why they missed the deadline.

“We do not comment on litigation,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Laury Marshall emailed to The Associated Press.

The center first petitioned the agency for a federal listing in 2019. It won a federal court order the following year forcing the agency to render an initial decision on whether there was enough scientific evidence to warrant a full review of the plant's status. The agency then proposed the endangered status, pending a year-long review.

“We find that Tiehm’s buckwheat is in danger of extinction throughout all of its range due to the severity and immediacy of threats currently impacting the species now and those which are likely to occur in the near term,” the agency said last October.

The primary threats are destruction, modification or curtailment of its habitat from mineral exploration and development, road development and other vehicle use, livestock grazing, invasive plant species and herbivory, the agency said. Climate change may further exacerbate the risks, and “existing regulatory mechanisms may be inadequate to protect the species,” it said.

The agency said then that fewer than 44,000 of the plants were known to exist, and the number likely was lower after thousands were destroyed in 2021 in what agency officials concluded was an unprecedented attack by rodents in the high desert near the California line.

Scott Lake, a lawyer for the center, said in the formal notice of intent to sue to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams on Tuesday that the “as-yet-unexplained collection/destruction events” have eliminated approximately 40% of the flower's population.

“Additional disturbances within the species’ habitat continued to occur through 2021 and 2022, underscoring the significant risk that this species faces to its survival,” Lake said.