The destruction of a significant amount of a native Nevada plant has drawn a war of words, a federal lawsuit and allegations of criminal activity by a lithium mining company.
Tiehm’s buckwheat is an endemic species. That means it is rare and found only in Nevada — specifically in an isolated part of Nevada near a proposed lithium mine. ioneer, an Australian-based mining company, plans to open a mine called Rhyolite Ridge in Esmeralda County, and refers to the lithium deposits there as “a world-class resource with significant value creation potential.”
The lithium mined from the site is expected to fuel electric vehicles and energy storage needs “directly into … global battery supply chains.”
The ability to produce lithium locally, the company claims, will help offset lithium needs from foreign countries, including Australia, China and Chile. ioneer noted its proximity to the Tesla Gigafactory, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently said Nevada is ripe for lithium production potential. He hinted, however, that lithium mines in the state face regulatory hurdles before they can begin to operate.
ioneer says its intention, ultimately, is a sustainable future. Lithium mining is attempting to solve an environmental problem — reliance on fossil fuels. ioneer, along with Tesla, recently joined a multinational push for zero emissions and electric-based transportation by 2030.
Thiem’s buckwheat is complicating things. The Center For Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy organization, with offices around the West and Southwest, recently sued to have Tiehm’s buckwheat listed as an endangered species. CBD has a history of filing litigation for a variety of environmental causes.
The devastation of the plant’s population last fall makes a listing even more critical — and urgent, said CBD’s Nevada Director Patrick Donnelly.
“We are requesting that this petition be considered on an emergency basis,” Donnelly wrote to the federal government in October 2019. “BLM is allowing ongoing mineral exploration activities which are having immediate and significant impacts on this species.”
Over the weekend of Sept. 12, 2020, though, was when about 40% of the plant’s population was destroyed, prompting more urgent calls by CBD to save the plant.
“This appears to have been a premeditated, somewhat organized, large-scale operation aimed at wiping out one of the rarest plants on Earth, one that was already in the pipeline for protection,” Donnelly said mid-September. “It’s despicable and heartless.”
What killed the buckwheat?
ioneer’s Executive Chairman James Calaway recently disputed the allegation that the destruction was caused by deliberate human activity. During a press conference, he dovetailed off of a U.S. Fish & Wildlife report that showed the plant died of natural causes; specifically, rodents.
The report showed rodent scat was found at the site, roots appeared chewed and DNA evidence “most likely originated from the locally abundant white-tailed antelope ground squirrel… These data strongly support the hypothesis that a diurnal rodent … was responsible for damage to the Tiehm’s buckwheat population at Rhyolite Ridge in the late summer and early fall of 2020,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife reported.
“This is not an open-and-shut case.”
Calaway also railed on the Center for Biological Diversity.
“This report categorically refutes the irresponsible assertion by the Center for Biological Diversity, that this was an intentional human attack,” he added.
He said the company, upon discovery of the destroyed plant population, launched an investigation.
“There was unfortunately one group — the Center For Biological Diversity, known as CBD — that went to great lengths to broadcast far and wide false conspiracy theories that grossly mislead the public and the media,” Calaway said. “One can only conclude that they were peddling bad science and bad judgment with malicious intent to take advantage of nature’s destruction and use the situation as an excuse to point fingers and assertions that a crime had been perpetrated.”
He further said alleging a crime delayed a proper response to help the plant.
“They made the outlandish claim that … ‘plants were dug up and mangled was shovels, with tap roots cut and most of the dead buckwheat hauled off site,'” Calaway said. “They went so far as to say and I quote, ‘this appears to have been a premeditated, somewhat organized, large scale operation aimed at wiping out one of the rarest plants on earth.'”
Jim Morefield with the Nevada Department of Conservation’s Natural Heritage Division, which collects and maintains data on plant species in Nevada, inspected the site in September.
“The three years preceding this incident were exceptionally wet, and density of desert rodent populations is well-documented to increase under such conditions. If the total number of killed plus damaged plants is estimated at 27,000, and an individual rodent engaged one plant per day over the course of a month, Tiehm buckwheat field inspection that would require about 900 individual rodents over the 10 acres of buckwheat habitat,” he wrote. “If they engaged an average of two plants per day, only 450 individuals would be needed. It’s possible that a resource-starved individual could engage many more than two plants in a day.”
The Nevada Department of Wildlife also inspected the site, along with representatives, including Morefield, from the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The officials noted the rarity of the plant’s destruction. NDOW reported the following:
“Pocket gopher mounds and backfilled burrows were observed on the site, substantiating the species presence in the area. However, given the known home range size of pocket gophers as compared to the observed scale of disturbance at the site, multiple pocket gophers would have been required to create the scale of disturbance observed. If pocket gophers were the sole mechanism of disturbance and multiple pocket gophers caused the disturbance observed, if the site disturbance occurred in a relatively small window of time, it would have required a relatively synchronized event of selective herbivory.”
The cause of the damage, the reports noted, was ultimately uncertain.
Morefield noted, however, that “any human contribution to the kinds of damage observed must have been minor at most, and would not be the best explanation for the totality of evidence observed.”
“Given duration between reported impacts and observations, conclusive findings are difficult to determine,” state officials wrote in late Sept. “Pocket gopher mounds and backfilled burrows were observed on the site, substantiating the species presence in the area. However, given the known home range size of pocket gophers as compared to the observed scale of disturbance at the site, multiple pocket gophers would have been required to create the scale of disturbance observed.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, however was more certain in its conclusion: It was ground squirrels that caused the damage.
“Buckwheat DNA was detected in the scat, and the genetic signatures were a strong match (96.9-99.8 percent) to ground squirrels,” the agency reported on its website. “This coupled with known white-tailed antelope ground squirrel populations at Rhyolite Ridge, burrowing at damaged plants, and rodent bite marks on plant roots strongly supports that ground squirrels were responsible for the damage.”
CBD is disputing the federal government’s — and ioneer’s — conclusion that the plant was destroyed by rodents. In a press call last week, Donnelly repeatedly cited evidence, including the state reports, that the cause is should be considered undetermined.
CBD biologist Naomi Fraga said, “[the Fish & Wildlife] report appears to provide evidence that buckwheat plant parts have at some point been eaten by white-tailed antelope ground squirrels at Rhyolite Ridge. But I don’t see how this line of evidence can substantiate that the entirety of the wide scale damage was caused by small mammals.”
Fraga said the DNA sampling was insufficient and there is no clear consensus to the cause of the buckwheat’s destruction.
“The evidence of animal ground squirrel herbivory is really not substantiated based on these results,” she said. “I’m actually very surprised that the [Fish & Wildlife] would put out such a strong statement saying they have conclusively determined the cause of the damage.”
Other rodents could be responsible, she said, and roots are not a normal part of a ground squirrel’s diet.
“This is not an open-and-shut case,” she added.
Donnelly said there was noted human activity at the site, including plants inserted back into holes in the ground. “Our litigation is agnostic about the cause of the destruction,” Donnelly said. “Whether it was rodents or humans, Tiehm’s buckwheat obviously is in dire need of protection, and we feel confident a judge will agree with that assessment. Tiehm’s buckwheat is on a spiral toward extinction. We may not have 10 months to save it.”
CORRECTION: This story previously attributed NDOW’s report to Morefield. Morefield was one of the participants during the site visit that the report documented. Quotes from just Morefield were added to provide additional context.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time research appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.