Whatever act of violence occurred in the midsummer heat on that lonely white hill in Nevada, there was no one around to see it. By the time Naomi Fraga arrived there in mid-September, the air had cooled but the evidence of a selective massacre remained: Where there had once been plants, there were now hundreds of empty holes. A few mangled stems, severed from their roots, lay half buried in the chalky dirt. What alarmed Fraga more than the dead or missing were the survivors. The white hill, located on a high desert ridge about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas that was once part of an ancient caldera, was home to a wide variety of Great Basin flora. There were various species, including saltbushes and sagebrush. But only one appeared to have fallen victim to the unseen attack—a buckwheat. As she walked around the scene, Fraga’s first reaction was disbelief. What, or who, had it out for this particular plant?
The stricken species was named Eriogonum tiehmii, or Tiehm’s wild buckwheat. (Tiehm is pronounced like “team.”) Fraga had first met the plant in late spring, when the rains coax out a single pale yellow puffball of a blossom. Fraga thought it was adorable. It would make a splendid addition to a garden in Whoville. But the bloom lasts only a month. Most of the year the plant lies dormant; its plump leaves dry out and fade to a charmless gray.
Fraga is a botanist who considers herself to be in the service of plants. Many people love plants. They will tenderly care for them, encourage flowering or fruit, take an interest in the bark and leaves on a trail. A scientist may devote a lifetime to studying a single species. But to Fraga, these acts of appreciation, while welcome, are rooted in selfishness, not service. In her work as conservation director at the California Botanic Garden, near Los Angeles, she is frequently asked why a person should care about a rare plant. Sometimes she poses this question to herself, like a catechism. Fraga doesn’t mean to get “all woo-woo” on you, but here it is: Her answer is not rooted in beauty or usefulness or even a sense of curiosity or wonder, but because a species exists uniquely on this earth. Fraga knows that most people don’t feel this way. It is a level of respect that plants do not often receive.
What called her to the service of the Tiehm’s buckwheat was its rarity. Fraga often hikes to the top of the white hill, where she can look out over the complete universe of the plant. At the time of her initial visit, the latest count was 44,000 buckwheats across 10 acres, rooted in eight patches of white earth. Some time ago—perhaps thousands of years, or maybe tens of thousands, nobody can say—seeds found their way into this soil, which lacks important nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, and is extremely alkaline, more like baking soda than loam. But wild buckwheats, which are relatively distant cousins of the crop used to make flour for pancakes, are a tenacious genus of plant, known for making do with whatever soil they happen upon. Evolution ran its course, and a new species emerged. The plant learned to grow there and, as far as anyone knew, only there. There were no competitors for that toxic soil. Until, that is, the lithium mine.
In mining terms, the alkaline soil is called overburden—material that’s stripped away to access desired material below. The value of lithium has soared recently as the reality of climate change hits home. The element is at the heart of the batteries that will power millions of electric cars and a renewable energy grid. In April, President Biden set a goal of halving US emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, and global demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to quintuple by then. Until now, lithium has come almost exclusively from overseas, but as the rest of the world makes a similar scramble for resources, this supply is growing increasingly precarious. The mine that was proposed for this Nevada spot, known as Rhyolite Ridge, wouldn’t solve that shortage on its own, but it would make a dent—about 20,000 tons of battery-grade material per year, enough to power about 400,000 electric cars. The total value of the mine’s resources was estimated at $10 billion.
Even an amateur geologist viewing the landscape could see how hopelessly the habitat and the resource are intertwined. The white patches in which the buckwheat grow are outcrops of a rock called searlesite, where much of the lithium is locked. The mine would swallow much of the buckwheat’s habitat—60 percent of the plants would be removed in phase one of the project, rising to 90 percent during phase two, according to conservationists. To compensate, the mine owners, who deny the loss would be that high, planned to transplant the buckwheat or grow it from seed in unoccupied soil nearby. As a plant that has not naturally colonized any other home, it is not clear if they would survive the move.
No one doubts the value of lithium to mitigate climate change. But there would be costs wherever the element was extracted from the ground, and here that cost would come at the expense of a plant. Fraga had decided the buckwheat was hers to protect. That September day, she couldn’t make sense of what she saw. She knew the summer had been unusually dry, which meant that animals were seeking moisture wherever they could, perhaps in the roots of plants. Maybe they had caused the destruction. But her first thought was that it had something to do with the mine. All she knew for certain was that, while she was away, nearly half of an entire species had been destroyed. Fraga looked out over the hill. She wondered if she had already failed this plant.
Lithium is a feisty element. When it’s bonded with other elements to form a compound known as a salt, it may act as a mood stabilizer. But on its own it’s erratic, always wanting to give up an electron and take on a charge. It must remain under seal; the briefest contact with humid air or water will cause it to combust in a popping, sparking flame. These qualities also make it a perfect material for batteries, which are about taming the ephemeral—a spark, a flame—and bottling it up for later. Inside a battery, lithium ions and their liberated electrons will happily shuttle through an electrolyte from one end, the anode, to the other, the cathode, generating power along the way. And because lithium is the lightest metallic element, relatively little mass is required to store a lot of juice. In a Tesla Model S, only 3 percent of the battery pack is lithium metal, according to some outside estimates.
That level of efficiency, though, was long in coming. The first rechargeable battery was invented in 1859 by Gaston Plante, and it involved lead and acid. The same basic chemistry still creates the spark that starts a gas-powered car engine, but the design is as heavy and toxic as it sounds, and not powerful enough for many modern uses, like keeping a car running at high speed for a long time. By the end of the last century, scientists believed that lithium-based designs could pack more punch, going longer without weighing things down. It would take decades of experiments to work out the chemistry, and a viable commercial model emerged only in the 1990s. Three scientists who made it possible were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019.
It is a miraculous thing that in 2021 a car can drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a single electric charge and without spewing exhaust, or that a solar farm can compete with a gas plant by storing electrons overnight. These advances have arrived in the nick of time for a transition away from fossil fuels. The rising demand for new electric cars and trucks is expected to lead to a tripling of the energy capacity of new batteries between 2020 and 2025. These batteries aren’t perfect. They will need to get smaller, more recyclable, more powerful, and also more diversified, with versions that depend on other resources, such as sodium or manganese. In the interim, though, the world needs a lot more lithium.
Lithium is abundant in the Earth’s crust, but there is rarely enough found in one place to go to the trouble of digging it up. The element is most common near volcanoes where rock has been formed by slow-cooling magma. In some places, the lithium from those volcanic rocks leaches out and finds its way into the water table, forming a brine that can be pumped from the ground and evaporated, leaving lithium-bearing compounds behind. Until recently, Australian rocks and Andean brines have supplied enough lithium to satisfy most of the world’s needs. But the scramble to shift from fossil fuels has inspired a search closer to home. The US has the fourth-largest lithium deposits in the world, most of them in Nevada, but only one active brine operation, located in the state’s Clayton Valley, immediately to the east of Rhyolite Ridge. In both places, the lithium is the product of explosive volcanic eruptions that took place about 6 million years ago. The lithium was leached out of volcanic ash, then either remained in ground water, to be mined as a brine in the valley, or was absorbed by clays and sediments that now rest atop the ridge. The lithium trapped in clay or sediments is much harder to extract.
The virtues of this location are extolled by Bernard Rowe, managing director of Ioneer, the Australian mining company that owns the mining claims over Rhyolite Ridge. Rowe spoke over Zoom from Australia, where the pandemic has kept him for the past year, but his virtual background was set to a photo of the white Nevada hill. He first climbed it in 2016, three years before Fraga. A geologist by training, he had spent the previous decade scouring the American Southwest, mostly for new gold and copper deposits, and had rented a farmhouse in the nearby town of Dyer. At the top of the hill, he saw scars where prospectors in the 1920s had probed for boron, used then in fiberglass and today in all sorts of things, including smartphone screens. The boron deposit was so-so in quality. And the sediment was not as rich in lithium as pure rock, nor as easy to access as brines. But now that lithium was so valuable, Rowe saw an opportunity: two in-demand minerals in one spot, there for the taking.
Ioneer promised to operate thoughtfully, or as thoughtfully as an open-pit mine could. It would not leach out the lithium and boron with extreme heat, and instead would use a less-carbon-intensive method it had developed involving sulfuric acid. The company said it would dispose of those chemicals carefully, and highlighted plans to use autonomous mining vehicles to reduce traffic and pollution. It also secured the nearly unanimous support of neighbors. Talk to anyone in this erstwhile gold-mining region and expect to be regaled with enthusiasm for the arrival of “white gold.”
There was, of course, one problem: the buckwheat. Rowe knew from the start that the ridge was home to a species that the Bureau of Land Management considered “sensitive.” This meant the mine would need a plan for the plant. The mining would happen at the base of the hill, where plenty of buckwheat plants would need to be dug up. But they would be replanted, and, he said, pointing over his shoulder to the white hill, “we’re not planning to touch that.” The portion on high ground would remain intact. Rowe told me that the mine is ultimately a friend to the buckwheat—a catalyst for its protection—and argues that a concerted effort to replant the buckwheat in other areas can only help it repopulate. “If you do nothing with this plant, it will be gone,” he said. In the whole history of this plant, only the mine had stepped in to fund substantial studies and protect it.
And besides, the mine would produce an element necessary to mitigate climate change—a misfortune that will eventually wreak havoc on all plants, on this ridge and everywhere else. “We can’t just close our eyes and ears to the fact that we need lithium,” Rowe said.
There is a reason the buckwheat ended up on the BLM’s list of sensitive plants, and his name is Jerry Tiehm. He is the curator at the herbarium at the University of Nevada-Reno where he tends to a vast collection of flora, kept dried and pressed in a row of metal cabinets. This includes seven species in the tiehmii clan. Tiehm always refers to his plants by their scientific name, holding them at a little distance. He likes most plants. There is a peppergrass, which springs with great enthusiasm from the cracks of dried lake bottoms, that he might even love. But that species was named after a lucky man called Davis. Tiehm is 69 years old and needs knee surgery, but he plans to spend the summer finding plants driving around in his GMC Yukon. Nevada remains a place of botanical mystery. He feels a responsibility to decipher it.
Tiehm begins the story of how he found the buckwheat with one of his sayings: “Strange habitats yield strange plants.” In the spring of 1983, he was part of a band of botanists hired by the New York Botanical Garden and dispersed to survey the vast territory stretching from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. It involved a lot of solo wandering and long, disappointing days. But the spring morning when he turned a corner on the road through Rhyolite Ridge and saw that odd white hill, he knew there would be something. Sure enough, before him was a type of wild buckwheat that he did not recognize. He pressed a few plants and mailed them to a colleague who knew the genus better than he did. Soon after, Tiehm received a phone call and learned that he had become, once again, the namesake of a flower.
Tiehm went part-time on botany for a while. He found work in Reno as a casino bellman and limo driver and did a little consulting work for gold mines and geothermal exploration projects. In 1994, he was asked by the BLM to go back to the ridge and do a formal census of his namesake. He searched well beyond its 10-acre habitat, hiking into some of the nearby mountains where he could see similar patches of white earth from the highway. But he didn’t find it there. He noted the old mining scars, so he suggested in his report that the BLM restrict mineral extraction in the area, which the agency declined to do. He didn’t press the issue. Apart from this odd plant, who would want this lonely hill?
Then, two years ago, Tiehm found himself driving down to Rhyolite Ridge with Elizabeth Leger, a fellow botanist and his boss at the university. She was conducting a study, with money from Ioneer, to see whether the buckwheat could be safely moved from the mining pit. She needed to gather the native soil to grow seedlings in the greenhouses on campus. Leger had taken on the research knowing that transplanting might not work. In 1987 government scientists had tried to move the Crosby buckwheat, another lover of strange soils, to make room for a gold mine north of Reno. It grew happily in its new home at first. Then, 30 years later, one of Leger’s graduate students decided to check in. They found the habitat choked with other plants, barely a buckwheat to be found. Luckily, Crosby’s buckwheat had other homes besides the gold mine. Tiehm’s did not. “In my opinion,” Tiehm says, “this plant is not going to grow in any other place you put it.”
But it wasn’t Tiehm’s project. He was just there as a guide. “I’m good at knowing what’s not my business,” he says. Still, it was a strange position to be in. Without him, the buckwheat could very well have been tilled as overburden, and no one would have been the wiser. Would it matter? The buckwheat is an endangered species, he believes. Yet he can see also how much the world needs lithium. He can see the road to clean energy is an imperfect one, not without collateral damage. Who is he to decide where the hammer should fall?
In Esmeralda County, Nevada, a three-hour drive to Costco is a routine grocery run. Roughly 900 people live over 3,580 square miles in two valleys on either side of Rhyolite Ridge, which is a botanical meeting point. One side is a forest of Joshua trees, the northernmost of the Mojave, and the other is a sea of sagebrush, the start of the Great Basin. For Fraga, driving to the ridge from her home on the outskirts of Los Angeles is a multiday trip.
When Fraga and I arrived there on a bright day last October, the first thing she saw was a pair of ATV tracks cut deep into the hill and straight through the buckwheat. “You’ve gotta be friggin’ kidding me,” she said as she hopped out of the passenger side of a dust-covered Toyota Tacoma at the foot of the white hill. Fraga is 41 years old and was wearing leggings tucked into hiking shoes, her hair in a ponytail under a baseball cap. The Tacoma’s driver, Patrick Donnelly, is the Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group leading the cause for the buckwheat’s protection. He made a note to report the new damage to the BLM and grumbled about how it should have already put up a fence.
The habitat is protected on three sides by rhyolitic cliffs, and the air is still. But as we climbed up, the quiet was interrupted by the occasional rumble of a mining truck installing protective barriers over Ioneer’s bore holes. We stopped to observe it. This is public land, so all of us—joyriders, miners, botanists, journalists—had a right to be there. But everyone looked like a trespasser to someone else. Donnelly was feeling especially paranoid. A few months earlier, during a pitstop for sandwiches at a store in Dyer, the pair spotted a poster that said MISSING above a photograph of the Tiehm’s buckwheat in bloom. Ioneer had advertised a $5,000 reward for sightings outside the path of the lithium mine. The poster was a long shot; professional botanists like Tiehm had tried and failed to find any rogue buckwheat colonies. Fraga thought the poster placed an unwelcome target on the plant, even though it clearly said “do not collect.” Maybe it would encourage a local to dig it up and then miraculously find it somewhere else. Not long after, a researcher from the University of Nevada-Reno, checking on a buckwheat transplant experiment, found the summer massacre.
The discovery kicked off an investigation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A preliminary report by UNR concluded that the damage was caused by rodents, not people. But Fraga and Donnelly remained skeptical. The evidence was circumstantial and could have happened after the fact. They had never seen a single species targeted so systematically and at such a suspicious time. Then again, if people had done the damage, why had they left the job half finished? We picked our way over the chalky hillside, sidestepping dormant buckwheats. Fraga picked up a severed plant and asked if it looked as if it had been gnawed by rodent teeth or cut with shears. It was hard to tell.
Fraga is from a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. When she was a child, her parents, immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico, did not hike or camp; her mother did clerical work in various offices, and her father worked long hours driving a truck. There were barely any plants to look at in the industrial sprawl of the southern San Gabriel Valley. But in college, her biology coursework led to a volunteer job at the local botanical garden, where her job was to digitize the plant specimens of 19th-century botanical explorers. She fell in love with their single-minded passion, a quality she also found in the people she met at the garden, who were crazy about plants. “All they could do was talk all day about them,” she says. Fraga had been unaware that people like that existed.
For most people, plants are at the outer edge of our “moral circle,” a term popularized by the bioethicist Peter Singer. We hold them at a greater distance than our family or strangers or most animals. Their ways of communicating are unfamiliar, and their foundational role in our lives is harder to understand. When Fraga’s father learned what she planned to do with her biology degree, he didn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to work with people. A few years ago she took him searching for rare flowers in the mountains close to home, to help him see what she saw in plants. He told her he appreciated her skilled driving on dirt roads.
This emotional distance extended to academia. In graduate school, Fraga’s focus was a family of desert plants called monkey flowers, which produce quirky blossoms but are weedy and hard to love. The species she chose as her dissertation topic was rare, and, as it happened, in the path of a future development. The plant had previously failed to get protection because not enough research had been done. Inspired, Fraga dug into her research and wrote a conservation plan detailing how to best protect the flower. She would have to figure out a way to speak a little louder to advocate for certain plants, she decided. She met Donnelly while conducting field work near Death Valley. They became close friends, and years later he asked for her help saving a rare buckwheat, the Tiehm’s. Fraga told him she would do what she could.
Fraga often calls her time with buckwheat an “experiment.” She is a scientist, not an activist, and finds it strange to have stepped over this invisible barrier, putting herself at odds with government scientists she knows from botanical listservs and desert plant conferences. Where Fraga is measured with her words, Donnelly is prone to blurt out sharp opinions. He has hit UNR and the local BLM office with so many open records requests that state officials began to avoid using the word Tiehm’s in emails. “Sometimes you have to sue the motherfuckers!” he says.
Donnelly first became aware of the plant’s plight in 2019, and shortly after that his organization successfully sued to stop Ioneer from exploring the terrain. That fall, they petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare Tiehm’s buckwheat an endangered species. “If the Endangered Species Act has any meaning at all, this plant gets listed,” he says. Donnelly had seen plenty of plant destruction throughout his career. And yet the damage to the buckwheat last summer hit him especially hard. “It was like seeing a good friend of mine get murdered,” he says. When Donnelly thought about giving up, Fraga reminded him there were still plants left to save.
The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 on a nearly unanimous vote that reflected a collective awakening to the accelerating crisis of extinction. This was quickly challenged when an endangered fish called the snail darter got in the way of the partially built Tillicoe Dam, in Tennessee. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled for the fish and affirmed the intent of the law: to protect species at “whatever the cost.”
Conservationists like Donnelly have since wielded a singularly powerful tool: petitions to protect threatened species. The government can delay or reject those petitions, and often does. (There is a current backlog of more than 500 petitioned species.) But each successful listing adds up to a larger strategy of protecting biodiversity and offers a way to protect the waters, the old growth forests, and the hillsides on which species live and that other laws do not so clearly protect. Some conservationists will admit (perhaps after a few drinks) that it is rather peculiar to have made species the basic subunit of conservation. Modern biology has taught us that a species is a messy concept; drawing neat categories based on reproductive rules or genetics or physiology is often impossible. A few years ago, the entire group of monkey flowers that Fraga studied was swept from one genus to another. But the category of “species” is now part of the legal philosophy that holds us back from far wider ecological destruction.
That rationale does not fully account for Donnelly’s deep “personal relationship with an inanimate being,” as he puts it. He advocates for dozens of Nevada species, and yet it is Tiehm’s buckwheat that he thinks about all the time. It is the most extreme example of rarity he has ever known, always flickering at the edge of nonexistence. All it would take is another incident like last summer’s. “We’re the only ones paying attention,” he says. “I feel a level of personal responsibility.”
We stopped to catch our breath halfway up the white hill, which is tremendously steep, on our way to the best spot to view the buckwheat’s universe. Fraga believed the extinction of any species was a tragedy, whether or not anyone had studied it or even laid eyes upon it, but she knew that wouldn’t satisfy most people. As we paused, Fraga noted that if the government had funded more studies of this rare plant in the 1990s, after Tiehm had surveyed it, she would be more prepared to make a case for it for those, unlike her and Donnelly, who don’t instinctively feel an emotional connection to a plant living on a remote Nevada ridge. She could say more about its role in the ecosystem: the food and shelter it provides to animals, the way it acts as a landing pad for pollinators like bees. The buckwheat is unlikely to become a cash crop or yield chemicals in its leaves that would kill an antibiotic-resistant superbug. But what if its genes harbor secrets that other plants could use to adapt to harsh places? We know what the mine offers, but we’ve been given so little time to understand this plant. Perhaps if more forethought was given to how to preserve and advocate for rare things before they are threatened, they would not be in such a fix. Now judgment day is here, and the only true research on the plant is being funded by a mine.
The environmental ethicist Katie McShane compares our reverence for species to the word freedom. Everyone believes in it, but nobody knows what it means. “Even if you agree that it has value, it doesn’t tell you what to do when that value conflicts with my needs,” she says.
Comparing the value of things, weighing the costs and benefits of one against the other, is increasingly the preoccupation of environmentalists. Sometimes those competing things both have a claim in the natural world; sometimes one has a claim to bettering human life. Or the planet as a whole. If the mine at Rhyolite Ridge were digging for gold or copper, perhaps it would be easier to dismiss its value. Everyone benefits from raw materials, but it can be easy to say that you don’t “need” gold or that dollar value isn’t paramount. With lithium, denial is harder. Donnelly and Fraga both agree that the country—the world—needs to wean itself from fossil fuels. Lithium and sunshine are abundant in the desert Southwest, and so the transition to green energy will likely bring a new level of industrialization to its landscape. Mines and solar power plants will compete with rare buckwheat and desert tortoises. But in the absence of those mines and power plants, the desert will still suffer. For all their harsh conditions and seeming barrenness, deserts are fragile places, the life there is easily imperiled by higher temperatures and more frequent droughts. The conditions demand we formulate a moral equation: What is the value of the mine versus the value of the plant?
All mines have a dirty side, whether or not their products are “green.” They can destroy landscapes or pollute water supplies or expel greenhouse gases. Historically, mining companies have cared little about those impacts, doing the bare minimum to adhere to regulations. But lithium miners face extra pressure to act responsibly, explains Alex Grant, a technical adviser who works with those mines. Electric vehicle buyers are likely to care, for example, that 25 percent of their car’s lifetime carbon impact comes from the battery supply chain. So automakers, seeking to enhance their climate-friendly reputations, have increasingly leaned on lithium suppliers to burn less coal and seek certifications attesting that their mines do not ruin waters and habitats.
It is impossible to make every cost go away. As Grant sees it, there is no alternative to digging up lithium. The status quo of fossil-burning cars is not an option. What did opponents of lithium mining expect? A return to the horse and buggy? “We don’t need every project,” he says. “Some of them might have impacts that we should not accept. But we’re going to need a large fraction of them, that’s for sure.”
Each project seems to have its own set of costs that someone will find unacceptable, which makes deciding which ones should be allowed to move forward yet more difficult. In Nevada’s far north, Thacker Pass, another major lithium project close to digging, is held up by disputes with indigenous groups and ranchers over water rights and pollution. The same is true in places like Chile and Bolivia. Alternatives that appear more ecologically appealing, like brines near California’s Salton Sea, have been talked about for decades, but the technology and financing behind those projects is uncertain. We could look to the oceans, maybe; deep-sea mining could offer lithium on a scale that would make any terrestrial mine seem puny. But the environmental costs of that approach are arguably even less well understood, and potentially enormous.
In that context, the fate of a humble flower seems like a very small thing when the lithium can be had so soon, and with few extra complications. Mining interests, ranchers, and developers have long argued that the process of listing endangered species should factor in economic costs, like the lost value of a mine or the expense of keeping a species on life support when it seems natural forces could select it out of existence.
To Fraga, this is all a logical trap. Certain arguments for the plant may be emotional or reverent. But perhaps our rush for lithium is also emotional and prevents us from thinking on a longer time scale. “Rhyolite Ridge is not the only great hope for lithium,” she says. Perhaps we could wait a little longer for our domestic lithium, maybe pay a little more in the interim, work out the compromises that are required to mine in other places. Naysayers might point to the damage brought about by a warming climate and say Tiehm’s buckwheat is a doomed species no matter what. Better to sacrifice it now for the greater good of alternative energy. Fraga disagrees. The buckwheat clearly needs help, but it can hardly be written off as a goner. The mine is a death sentence to a species that could live on, evolve, contribute in ways that we have not had the time to comprehend. As she sees it, protecting this plant is a service to our future, both for ourselves and for other species.
Some years, the springtime blankets the Nevada desert with superblooms of color. Dull-brown hills turn to waves of blue and purple and gold. But when Fraga visited the white hill in April, the previous 12 months had been the state’s driest on record, and Rhyolite Ridge was as thirsty and barren as it had been the previous fall. The chalky soil should have a slight bounce, like walking on moss, but instead it crumbled underfoot. Fraga still hoped to see signs of life. The plant had been dormant since the incident last summer, and this was the season when she could begin to truly assess the damage.
The visit happened at an uncertain time. Leger’s team at UNR had recently reported back on its transplant efforts. They didn’t look promising. In the campus greenhouses, the buckwheat grew well in soil gathered from the habitat, but not in the similar soil gathered from unoccupied sites nearby. The plant was picky. The team also learned that the buckwheat was popular with insects—more so than any of its neighbors. It was a small thing, but it is unusual to know these kinds of details about a rare plant, Leger told me. There is a lot more to learn.
Leger also worries for the plant. As she was preparing her findings, a DNA analysis from US Fish and Wildlife had affirmed that the summer damage was done by rodents, which was alarming. “They cannot be legislated, and they are the most creative creatures when it comes to overcoming fences or barriers,” she says. “This is an area that needs immediate attention and research.” If it was going to survive, the buckwheat would need protection from more than just the mine.
In early June, the buckwheat won its first major victory. After a series of delays and lawsuits, Fish and Wildlife issued a preliminary decision: Listing the Tiehm’s buckwheat was warranted. While the government is often recalcitrant in fights over listing species, there were many threats to cite: ATV drivers, rodent massacres, climate change—and, crucially, the mine. The combination of last year’s damage and the mine’s initial dig would mean losing up to 88 percent of the plants, they calculated, and based on Leger’s results the transplant idea seemed ill-advised. But the battle is not over. Rowe says Ioneer is working with private botanical consultants on a new, “expanded” protection plan, with a more aggressive time frame involving more test transplants and more soils than UNR had attempted. It will be up to the government to decide whether the science bears out.
In the meantime, Fraga and Donnelly continue making pilgrimages to the ridge. Within a few moments of arriving that dry April morning, Fraga spotted it: a hint of soft green. And another. And another. Some of the young buckwheats looked like seedlings, springing from undisturbed white soil; others seemed to be grafting from the damaged roots. Fraga crouched down and cupped a tender shoot. It was small and delicate; she couldn’t be certain what another hot summer might do to it. But she was surprised and feeling hopeful. In a few weeks’ time, in May, there might even be a blossom or two. Perhaps, she speculated, the plant has a natural cycle that we don’t yet comprehend. A single buckwheat can live for centuries. Our human eyes have beheld this species for such a brief time. Who are we to say how resilient it is?
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