What's next after federal wildlife officials missed a deadline to protect Florida's ghost orchids
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has missed the statutory deadline of Jan. 24, 2023 to make a decision on protecting the iconic ghost orchid. That leaves the species in a regulatory limbo without crucial safeguards, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Ghost orchids are found in Southwest Florida and Cuba, but are incredibly rare, due to a number of threats, including climate change, habitat degradation and poaching. They have declined by 90% worldwide, with only 1,500 orchids believed to remain in Florida — and less than half of those is known to be mature enough to reproduce.
The orchid’s current limited range includes the Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, plus other conservation and tribal areas in Collier, Hendry and possibly Lee counties.
Elise Bennett, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, described ghost orchids as "hauntingly beautiful."
"They've been the subject of movies, of books, and many, many news articles. And I think in some ways, they've gained a level of celebrity that we don't often see for plants in our state, which makes them really fascinating,” Bennett said.
“I also know there are many folks who like to collect orchids. And so, by dint of just being an orchid, and a rare one at that, it really is at risk for being taken from the wild."
In a recent poaching case, two people were accused of filling a bag with more than 30 rare and endangered plants, including a ghost orchid, from Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park late last year.
Intense storms can also impact these orchids, as the climate continues to change.
“We are seeing more and more intense hurricanes. And so particularly with a few of the hurricanes over the last few years, Irma being one of them, we became more and more concerned about the species,” Bennett said.
In January 2022, the Center for Biological Diversity partnered with The Institute for Regional Conservation and the National Parks Conservation Association to petition the USFWS to set federal protections for ghost orchids.
The USFWS then responded saying the listing might be warranted, setting the one-year timer for the agency to review and decide whether to protect it under the Endangered Species Act.
Bennett said the decision should have been made quickly.
"But unfortunately, we're not seeing that. Time and time again, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has missed these deadlines for species,” Bennett said.
“They have an incredible backlog of decisions to make, not just for the ghost orchid … we're really concerned about that and we want to see the agency put all the resources it needs to towards making sure every single species that needs protections gets it."
Bennett said USFWS officials told her that it may be several years before they make a decision for ghost orchid protections.
If immediate conversations don't urge the agency to do more — and quickly — Bennett said they can move forward with something under the Endangered Species Act called the citizen suit provision where any person can enforce the law in court.
In 2016, USFWS announced a methodology for prioritizing status reviews and accompanying 12-month findings on petitions for listing species under the Endangered Species Act, according to Renee Bodine, public affairs specialist with the USFWS.
“This methodology is intended to allow us to address the outstanding workload of status reviews and accompanying 12-month findings strategically as our resources allow and to provide transparency to our partners and other stakeholders as to how we establish priorities within our workload into the future,” Bodine said in an email.
“We are applying the 2016 prioritization methodology ("binning" the species) and ghost orchid will appear on the next update of the National Listing Workplan. To help us ensure that the status reviews are comprehensive, we request scientific and commercial data and other information regarding the ghost orchid and factors that may affect its status.”
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