Interview: How an Endangered Species Act Listing Will Help San Francisco’s Last-of-Its-Kind Manzanita
You may have read about the Franciscan manzanita plant, thought to be extinct for 60 years until its re-discovery in San Francisco in 2009, that has been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The plant, Arctostaphylos franciscana, was discovered this way, according to this excellent history from the LA Times:
(O)n Oct. 16, 2009, botanist Daniel Gluesenkamp was driving home to San Francisco from a climate change conference in Sonoma. Others at the event had waxed eloquent about complex engineering solutions and adaptation strategies. Gluesenkamp pushed for the most basic of fixes, he recalled, “things like saving the rare plants today. Find them where they are today and protect them.”
Just after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, he said, “something caught my eye. Just a flash of a glimpse. And it looked like a manzanita, in a site where they’d kind of removed some trees from behind it.” The shrub was on a traffic island in the middle of a busy highway, part of a billion-dollar-plus construction project aided by federal stimulus funds.
Gluesenkamp, who is executive director of the Calflora database of Golden State plants, drove by three times, trying to get a better glimpse. He eventually called Lew Stringer, an ecologist at the Presidio Trust, who raced across the highway and officially identified the plant.
The plant now resides in an undisclosed location somewhere in the Presidio. (Dog owners, take heed.)
Yesterday, KQED’s Paul Lancour talked to Brent Plater, Executive Director of the Wild Equity Institute, one of the environmental groups that petitioned for the endangered species listing. Plater discussed the importance of the Endangered Species Act in the recovery of species on the brink of extinction, and how a listing might help the San Francisco manzanita, specifically.
An edited transcript follows the audio:
What has happened concerning the plant and the Endangered Species Act?
Today the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will propose protecting the Franciscan manzanita as an endangered species. It was rediscovered in the wild in San Francisco after having thought to be lost for about 60 years.
It’s the only one remaining. The reason this is a big deal is that the protection of the Endangered Species Act is by far the most important set of conservation tools we have available in the US to make sure that species on the brink of extinction do not become extinct and in fact recovers.
What comes along with the designation as an endangered species is a whole series of protections that include protections for the individual plant, critical habitat designations that protect the habitat of the plant, not just where it is now but where we need to reintroduce it to.
You get a formal binding recovery plan to help it recover so we transform this one plant into a functioning species again. And of course you get prioritization and funding that will flow to protected species that unprotected species don’t get.
How will this help this particular plant?
We started off in 2009 with one individual plant. That’s not enough to get species recovery; you have to have at least two and start from there.
But the Endangered Species Act allows us to create a binding recovery plan so we can transform this individual plant into a functioning species again. That plan is binding on regulatory agencies and will be funded; money will be put behind it. And the individual plant will be protected from harm.
The Presidio Trust, where the plant is, has a mandate to become a profitable business by a certain date; if they fail to do that, the protections of the Presidio Trust could go away. But the endangered species protection will stay with that plant, even if other circumstances change.
On top of that, the habitat the plant is found, those places we know the plant needs to be reintroduced so we can have a fully functioning species again — those come with the Endangered Species Act designation. None of them apply right now. Study after study has shown that the strongest suite of regulatory tools, which have made the most difference in keeping species from becoming extinct, are the protections of the ESA.
How are you going to propagate this plant?
Luckily there are plants that were saved back in the 1940s by some pioneering and adventurous botanists and were kept in some botanical gardens in the Bay Area and beyond. The genetic lineage of those plants even today is well known. Fortunately for this manzanita, it is possible to find a mate and get this plant to seed again.
What will happen concerning this proposal by Fishand Wildlife?
They’ll take public comments both on the protection for the plant and also for what areas should be designated critical habitat. After the public comment period closes, they’ll have a certain period of time, no more than a year, to make the final rule, and at that point the plant becomes formally protected.
The public comment period is not really an issue; it’s highly unlikely that someone will find a couple of hundred manzanitas and convince Fish and wildlife that it’s not endangered.
What they’re really asking for is where the plant should be, where the critical habitat are that we should protect to makes sure the recovery efforts move forward.
Yes. This is the first time the Obama administration has proposed to protect a species proposed by a citizen petition. Every other one has been rejected or not ruled upon. So just to get to this place, is a huge milestone.
But it shouldn’t be. It should be that the administration protects species on the brink with more regulation. But they haven’t. Their record at this point is as bad as or in some ways worse than the Bush admin during its first term.
But this is an easy case. It doesn’t get more endangered than having just one left in the wild.