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Conservationists: Feds not protecting rare plant from cattle

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists are heading back to court to try to force federal land managers to remove cattle that are grazing on U.S. rangeland designated as critical habitat for an endangered wildflower at a proposed lithium mine in Nevada.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal 60-day notice Monday of its intent to sue the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for failure to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat from destruction due to cattle grazing.

The 6-inch-tall (15-centimeter-tall) yellow flower is “one of North America’s most endangered plants, but federal officials are letting the livestock industry run roughshod over its fragile habitat,” said Patrick Donnelly, the center’s Great Basin director.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized cattle grazing as a threat to the buckwheat’s existence, but the Bureau of Land Management has done nothing to protect these wildflowers,” said Donnelly, who documented the damage and photographed seven cattle grazing in the habitat on Jan. 3.

The service listed the plant as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in December and designated 910 acres (368 hectares) as critical habitat surrounding the plants halfway between Reno and Las Vegas — the only place it’s known to exist in the world.

The service said the proposed lithium mine, which is intended to produce a key element for batteries in electric vehicles, poses the biggest threat to the flower’s survival. But livestock grazing is among the other threats that include climate change, road-building and rodents that may eat the plants.

The BLM has temporarily suspended most of the grazing permits for the federal livestock allotment but still allows grazing at about 20% of the full amount and has indicated to the Fish and Wildlife Service that active grazing may increase in the future, the center said.

In addition to the seven cattle Donnelly photographed at the site last week, he documented tracks and significant disturbance to the habitat. Several Tiehm’s buckwheat plants had been directly trampled by cattle, he said.

“Contrary to BLM’s representations to the service, it is evident that cattle have not been removed from Tiehm’s buckwheat’s range and are actively damaging the species’ designated critical habitat,” the center said in the notice to sue.

BLM had no comment, agency spokesperson Richard Packer said in an email to The Associated Press.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in December only about 16,000 Tiehm’s buckwheat plants remain in six subpopulations on a total of just 10 acres (4 hectares) spread across about 3 square miles (7.8 square kilometers) — all on the mine site at Rhyolite Ridge in the Silver Peak Range west of Tonopah.

The mine is one of three major projects in Nevada with the promise of helping the U.S. accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy to combat climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The other two already are tied up in lengthy court battles — a lithium mine near the Oregon line that Native American tribes say is on sacred land where their ancestors were massacred in 1865, and a geothermal power plant adjacent to an endangered toad about 100 miles (160 km) east of Reno.

The geothermal project is on hold while USFWS consults with BLM about whether it complies with the Endangered Species Act’s requirement that no federal action be taken that could harm a listed species or its habitat.

At the proposed lithium mine with the wildflower, the center withdrew an earlier lawsuit aimed at blocking the mine, but later sued to force a listing of the flower.

The center said the Bureau of Land Management must engage in consultation with USFWS to ensure livestock grazing won’t harm the wildflower before any cattle are allowed on the land.

“Until BLM completes the required consultation, it must prohibit grazing any such grazing within Tiehm’s buckwheat’s designated critical habitat to ensure against any irreversible or irretrievable commitment of resources which would foreclose implementation of reasonable and prudent alternatives,” the center wrote.