A small, rootless fern found only in Miami’s rock ridge and one other place on the planet may be added to the endangered species list, U.S. wildlife managers announced Wednesday.
The Florida bristle fern, discovered a century ago growing in dense mats in shady hammocks near Coral Gables, once flourished in the pocked rock of the coastal ridge. Botanists found it clinging to the limestone floor and in sinkholes in at least 12 hammocks between Everglades National Park and Miami. But as early as 1938, they began to note its disappearance, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.
In 2009 when federal wildlife officials nominated the plant for protection, biologists found it in just 10 spots in Miami-Dade County and two in Sumter County west of Orlando, where it sprouted from boulders. An inventory concluded there were fewer than 1,000 individual plants.
Botanists now worry the moss-like fern may vanish entirely as development continues to shrink its dwindling habitat and rising seas make that habitat more inhospitable.
“We have to rethink how we build our communities and where we build,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued in 2011 to speed the protection of endangered species including the fern. “Florida is not making new land.”
Because the fern grows in such a specific place, it can also be considered an important measure of the health of the habitat, Lopez said.
In South Florida, the fern sprouts from pockets of limestone where water collects, making it susceptible to changes in groundwater. As seas rise, the fern’s coastal habitat will likely shrink. Saltwater may also push further inland through the region’s porous rock, making groundwater salty. Planners and water managers are now wrestling with how to control saltwater intrusion, from updating canal pumps to redistributing water through Everglades restoration projects. Those projects, ironically, are supposed to reverse drainage work that helped speed the fern’s disappearance decades ago when canals were dredged.
The public will have until Dec. 8 to comment on the proposal. Federal officials will then review the comments along with recommendations from scientists and agency staff before deciding whether to list the fern.
If the fern is listed, the agency will consider designating a critical habitat and coming up with a plan for saving it.