For Immediate Release, September 9, 2008
Contact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Lawsuit Filed to Protect Rare Virgin Island Plants
ATLANTA—The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a lawsuit in federal court in Atlanta challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to protect two rare Caribbean plants under the Endangered Species Act. More than a dozen years have passed since a petition was submitted to list the plants, Agave eggersiana and Solanum conocarpum, both of which are near extinction in the wild.
“Due to the federal government’s failure to act, numerous species have gone extinct while awaiting protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope this lawsuit will help ensure these plants do not suffer the same fate.”
In 1996, the U.S. Virgin Islands Division of the Fish and Wildlife Service petitioned to protect Agave eggersiana and Solanum conocarpum – both of which are native to the U.S. Virgin Islands – under the Act. In 1998, the Service agreed that there was credible information to support listing, and agency officials committed to issuing a final finding within nine months on whether the species should be listed. Six years later, the Service still had failed to act on the issue. In 2004 the Center filed a lawsuit, resulting in a settlement agreement requiring the Service to submit a final finding by February of 2006. The Service then substantially changed its position, disregarding the opinions of its own experts, and published a finding in 2006 that stated neither species should be listed.
Agave eggersiana is a robust, perennial herb native only to hillsides and plains in the eastern dry districts of the island of St. Croix. It has large funnel- or tubular-shaped flowers and can grow from 16 to 23 feet tall. Solanum conocarpum is a thornless, flowering shrub that may reach more than 9 feet in height in dry, deciduous forest on the island of St. John.
Habitat for both plant species has disappeared due to intense deforestation for cotton and sugar cane cultivation. Now, residential and tourism-related development and grazing by feral animals also threaten the plants’ habitats. Much of the suitable habitat for A. eggersiana is found on privately owned land slated for residential development. The suitable habitat includes dry scrub thicket, most of which has been severely degraded by feral goats grazing and the practice of burning off vegetation. There may no longer be any remaining A . eggersiana plants in the wild; survival of the species may now depend on propagating the plants in nurseries, then reintroducing them.
There are only about 220 S. conocarpum plants left in the wild in two areas on St. John – 156 plants at Nanny Point on land recently donated to the Virgin Islands National Park and 60 plants on private land. A project funded by the National Park Service was initiated in 2003 to propagate and reintroduce S. conocarpum into areas within the park. But the plants are threatened by management practices such as trail and facility maintenance, as well as feral pigs, feral goats, Key deer, and donkeys. The plants on private land are at risk from residential and tourism development.
The small number of remaining S. conocarpum plants is particularly troublesome because scientific information suggests the plant is functionally dioecious – having male and female flowers on different plants – and may require higher numbers in order to reproduce effectively.
Both plants can be viewed at the St. George Village Botanical Garden on St. Croix.
The Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver and the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory Law School are representing the Center for Biological Diversity on the case.
The lawsuit and background information on the plants species can be found on the Center for Biological Diversity Web site at: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/plants/Virgin_Islands_plants/index.html
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with 180,000 members and online activists, dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.