A few months ago, our local paper ran an article about how oil and gas leases in eastern Utah were being stymied by two rare Penstemons, Penstemon grahamii and Penstemon scariosus var. albifluvis as they currently going through the process of being listed for protection as endangered species. Local politicians continue to rail on about how economic development is being held-up by the attempts of uncompromising enviro-nuts conspiring with federal agencies to save a couple of ratty desert flowers at the expense of “energy independence.” From time to time, these articles are accompanied by delightful comments from various individuals along the lines of how stupid it is to make a fuss over a %@#*&! flower, and, if they came across such a plant, they would wipe their backsides with it.
Trolls, and duck dynasty-types aside, why it is more difficult to make people care about endangered plants than endangered animals? Perhaps, it’s because we tend to anthropomorphize them; the sight of a lone wolf being hunted down by a helicopter or a polar bear floundering in open sea stirs up our existential guilt. This guilt is compounded if the animal is doe-eyed and furry. That sympathetic response to a “cute” factor is harder to conjure up for a plant.
Not that attractiveness is a good thing for rare plants; in fact beauty is often detrimental to their survival. One of the most endangered plants in Utah is Arctomecon humilis, or the “Dwarf Bearclaw Poppy.” It is also one of the most beautiful, so when it isn’t being run over by ATVs, it is being dug up by admirers who want to grow it next to their front door. As in most cases, digging equals death. And so what if they die? Since plants don’t look pained or scream as they are dying, it’s much easier to stomach the notion of killing them. People will ignite a firestorm over white-tailed deer hunting and barred-owl culls, because those animals feel pain! They have feelings! But bulldozing land to expand an airport, or pulverizing biological soil crusts and squashing rare cacti on a weekend ATV ride is totally okay because it’s just dirt. They’re just plants. They’ll grow back.
Which is the other PR problem plants have. People presume that since dandelions seem to produce bucketfuls of seed and seem to be able to grow everywhere, that all plants will bounce back eventually. Of course, anyone who has attempted gardening knows better.
Prolific ubiquity or nature-as-Eden has always been a myth. At their peak, passenger pigeons in North American were estimated to have numbered 3.7 billion birds. (By comparison, there are only 260 million rock pigeons world-wide today.) Because they were everywhere and in such huge numbers it was difficult for people to accept that human over-hunting had wiped them completely out. People like to hold onto some hope that there is another plant or butterfly just over the hill, out of the way where no one has looked because who wants to accept that they are personally responsible for wiping something out forever? The last two known Great Auks were strangled to death by Icelandic fisherman in 1844. I’m betting if you had told them that those two were the very last of their kind, they would have found something else to eat. Nowadays, people would round up those Auks, put them in captivity, try to coax them to breed, and take DNA samples to stick in some fridge for safe keeping.
Science will save us from our own wanton destruction!
Except, it can’t. In the case of the Dwarf Bearclaw Poppy, botanists have been collecting seed and been trying to grow this plant since it was listed in 1979. They can get seed to germinate, but after about a year, the plant dies. Studies have been done, DNA has been sequenced, and field trials have tried a gazillion different approaches to give this little perennial what it needs, with zero results. It’s like the Panda of native Utah flora. The only thing they can seem to do it to protect the few last pockets of unique land where the Poppy hasn’t been trampled to death, dug out, or paved over. If the gypsum soils they grow in are disturbed, though, seeds won’t germinate there either. What good does it do to have seeds frozen away in a seed bank in some Nordic mountainside if the specific environment the plant has adapted to is covered by a sun-belt housing development or a runway?
Arctomecon humilis, on the brink. Photo credit USFWS on Flickr.
Perhaps the best argument I’ve heard for why we should care about endangered plants, animals, and insects, isn’t just for the “right” these living things have to exist. The earth has had mass extinctions before and has bounced back in a myriad of unusual, amazing, and startling diverse ways. By allowing something like a rare desert poppy to disappear, we are in fact, threatening the delicate balance of the Earth as we’ve come to know it. These delicate dryland plants are so uniquely adapted to their particular environment that in them, we should see an echo of our own fragile existence on this planet, and worry.