Energy Development Endangers Rare Plant, Agency Finds

APRIL 5, 2021

Contacts:

Laura Cunningham, Western Watersheds Project, lcunningham@westernwatersheds.org, 775-513-1280

Kevin Emmerich, Basin and Range Watch, KEmmerich@basinandrangewatch.org, 775-553-2806

Washington, D.C. – The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has just issued a positive 90-day finding on a petition filed by the conservation groups Basin and Range Watch and Western Watersheds Project to list the Threecorner milkvetch as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Based on their review, USFWS found that the petition presented substantial scientific or commercial information indicating listing the rare plant may be warranted. A 12-month status review has begun.

“We are pleased with this decision,” said Laura Cunningham, California Director at Western Watersheds Project. “Many other rare plants need protection from development and habitat disturbance. We know so little about these at-risk species, some may blink out before we even learn about their biology.”

Threecorner milkvetch (Astragalus geyeri var. triquetrus) is a rare, slender annual forb in the pea family (Fabaceae) that grows in sandy soils in isolated pockets of the Mojave Desert of southeastern Nevada, mostly in Clark County and a few areas of Lincoln County. One population inhabits adjacent Arizona on the other side of the Colorado River.

The rare milkvetch only germinates and flowers in rainy years, potentially resulting in losses of undetected populations during botanical surveys undertaken in dry years. The milkvetch is named after its peculiar three-sided seedpod.

The USFWS found that the petition presented substantial information indicating that energy development, utility infrastructure, and invasive weeds, are grave threats to the plant. 

In 2020, the BLM approved the 11-square-mile utility-scale Gemini Solar Project in California Wash, Clark County, Nevada, on top of a substantial population of Threecorner milkvetch. The project will remove 700 acres of important habitat for the species. The project will also require a new gen-tie transmission line, and disturbance from construction will enable more invasive weeds such as Sahara mustard, Russian thistle, and Arabian splitgrass to colonize the region. 

“Solar energy loses environmental benefits when it enables the extinction of one of Nevada’s rarest species” said Kevin Emmerich, Co-Founder of Basin and Range Watch. “Utility-scale solar development requires too much land and commonly creates conflicts like this. Using brownfields and rooftops for solar energy makes more ecological sense”. 

Threecorner milkvetch is recognized by the Nevada Natural Heritage Database to be one of the rarest plants in Nevada. It is endemic to specific geologic soil types on wind-blown sandy habitats such as dunes, typically stabilized by vegetation or a gravel veneer with creosote. Because of its limited distribution and low population numbers this small annual wildflower is extremely vulnerable to drought, climate change, human-caused threats to the desert.

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