Feds extend protection to handful of rare South Florida plants

Rockland Pineland Park at Southwest 144th Street and 92nd Avenue is a prime example of pine rockland habitat in Miami-Dade. Photographed in 2004.
Rockland Pineland Park at Southwest 144th Street and 92nd Avenue is a prime example of pine rockland habitat in Miami-Dade. Photographed in 2004.


South Florida’s remaining pine rocklands, a forest habitat reduced to perhaps 1 percent of its historical acreage by decades of development, may win new federal protection after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week proposed listing as endangered two rare rocklands plants: the Florida brickell-bush and Carter’s small-flowered flax.

As a part of that move, the agency also wants to designate 2,707 acres of rocklands outside of Everglades National Park, which already protects the largest remaining tracts of woods, as “critical habitat” for both species.

In addition, wildlife managers on Wednesday announced that they have formally added three other rare Florida coastal plants to the federal endangered species list, including two found only in South Florida — the Cape Sable thoroughwort and Florida semaphore cactus.

Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the service over its long backlog of delayed listings, said climate change is the biggest threat to the latest three plants to go on the federal list.

“These native plants are being squeezed out of existence — pressed between coastal development and rising sea levels,” said Lopez, a Center attorney based in Florida, in a release.

Federal wildlife managers, in their announcement, did not specifically mention climate change but cited habitat destruction and modification as key risks.

Development and farming destroyed most of Miami-Dade’s pine rocklands, which grow on Miami-Dade’s coastal limestone ridge and were the source of famed Dade County pine, a durable lumber used to build homes through the 1960s. Because the pine forest occupied the region’s highest and driest land, it also was among the earliest land to be developed in the county.

Most of the remaining pine rocklands in Miami-Dade are already in public hands as parks or conservation areas. The critical habitat doesn’t add any new regulatory teeth but it can boost efforts by state and local groups and agencies to maintain the land. Pine rocklands, for instance, are vulnerable to invasive plants and need periodic burning to thrive.

The dramatic loss of rocklands over the last century left many otherwise obscure plants that grow there among the rarest in North America, with some appearing only sporadically in a handful of spots.

Wildlife managers estimate that there are about 2,150 to 3,700 Florida brickell-bush plants and about 1,300 Carter’s small-flowered flax plants.

The two plants have been candidates for the federal listing since 1999 and are both already listed as endangered by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the proposal was part of its effort to reduce a backlog of 757 candidate species under a federal court-approved settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity. The other three Florida coastal plants that the agency will officially declare endangered this week are: •  The aboriginal prickly apple, a cactus found in 12 sites in Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties, among coastal strand vegetation and tropical coastal hammocks..

•  The Florida semaphore cactus, which grows in buttonwood forests and tropical hammocks in Biscayne National Park and on Little Torch Key.

•  The Cape Sable thoroughwort, which is found in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, mainly in Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys.

Beyond habitat loss, wildlife managers said the two cacti also are threatened by poaching and vandalism. The semaphore cactus also is at risk from disease and an invasive moth.

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