Nevada suit seeks to protect rare wildflower from mining

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists are suing the Trump administration to try to block mining exploration in Nevada they say would wipe out the only known population of a desert wildflower.

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The Center for Biological Diversity filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month to list Tiehm's buckwheat as an endangered species.

The lawsuit accuses the Bureau of Land Management of illegally dividing the mining operations into two separate projects so as to bypass its own regulations requiring a formal environmental review and public comment on any land disturbances larger than 5 acres.

"The Trump administration is ignoring laws protecting rare species like this beautiful flower to give our public lands away to a mining company," said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the center. "It's wrong for the BLM to allow mining companies to destroy its habitat while other agencies are deciding whether to list the flower as endangered."

The delicate wildflower — typically about 2 feet (0.6 meters) tall with white to cream to yellow blooms — plays an integral role in the desert ecosystem by stabilizing soils and dispersing seeds, the lawsuit said.

The estimated 20,000 to 43,000 individual plants that remain are found only in specific soil conditions on 21 acres spread across 3 square miles (7.8 sq. kilometers) of Nevada in a narrow elevation band between 5,960 and 6,200 feet (1,816 and 1,889 meters), according to the petition filed Oct. 7 seeking protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"There is only one location of this plant on the planet," the petition said. "Without ESA protection, the endemic plant is at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future."

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas says an agency "cannot break a project into small component parts to avoid ... the requirement to prepare an environmental impact statement." It says the two projects combined have the potential to impact a significant amount of the plant's sensitive habitat.

BLM lists one of the exploration projects as 4.98 acres (2.01 hectares) and the other as 4.04 (1.63 hectares) acres in the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County about 120 miles (193 kilometers) southeast of Reno where a lithium and boron mine is planned.

Bureau spokesman Rudy Evenson said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation. But he said it "takes the protection of this species seriously and is committed to the deliberate process to ensure it is protected."

The lawsuit said the plants are vulnerable to climate change, wildfires, invasive species, livestock grazing and off-road vehicle use but the most significant, immediate threat is mining.

The lawsuit says IONEER, an Australian mineral company with an office in Reno, has been conducting exploration activities in the buckwheat's habitat, including grading new roads and drilling test wells. It said the company already has bulldozed a road into three of the six populations of the plant, which may have irreversibly severed its reproductive activity.

IONEER said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Thursday that the lawsuit contains "significant factual inaccuracies," but didn't elaborate.

"IONEER has worked cooperatively with the Bureau of Land Management, has followed the legal requirements of the agency, supports the BLM's process and will continue to evaluate the lawsuit if it progresses," the company said.

Dana Bennett, president of the Nevada Mining Association, said the state has a separate regulatory process to consider any potential impact on any species located in the area of a proposed project.

"Every mining operation on public lands in this state must comply with rigorous federal and state requirements that identify and strictly manage the impacts of that operation at nearly every step along the way," she said.

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Eds: This story corrects an earlier version that misspelled Patrick Donnelly's last name.