August 31, 2012
Very likely the readers of this essay have never heard of the Leoncita false–foxglove. That’s because it is known from only two locations – one in Texas and one in New Mexico. And New Mexico botanists only became aware that this species is very rare sometime after 2007.
The Leoncita false-foxglove is an annual plant with linear leaves and pink flowers about an inch long that resemble the common garden foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). The species is a member of the broomrape family (Orobanchaceae). The plant occurs only in alkaline wetland habitats derived from gypsum and limestone that are permanently saturated with water. These wetland habitats often stand out as green jewels within the larger dry and drab-colored plant communities of the desert southwest. Such wetland habitats are often referred to as ciénegas. These gypsum and limestone-based ciénegas are unique and rare themselves in the desert southwest. They are also home to several federally listed endangered and threatened plant and animal species, which are entirely dependent on this very specialized habitat. You can learn more about the Leoncita false-foxglove on the New Mexico Rare Plant website. All of the information about this species portrayed in this essay has been derived from a single document written by former New Mexico Division of Forestry botanist Bob Sivinski (Sivinski 2011) which can be viewed here (PDF).
As mentioned above, the Leoncita false-foxglove is known from only two locations. In New Mexico the plant has been found only in Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The federally threatened Pecos sunflower (Helianthus paradoxus) and Wright’s marsh thistle (Cirsium wrightii) occur side by side with the Leoncita false-foxglove at Bitter Lake. Populations vary from year to year but have been in the hundreds or thousands. In Texas, the plant has been found at the Diamond Y Spring, now a Nature Conservancy Preserve about 7 miles NNW of Fort Stockton. The preserve is already home to 5 federally listed plant or animal species. Historic plant collections have been made of the Leoncita false-foxglove at two locations in Coahuila,Mexico. The common thread connecting the four locations is the presence of very large wetland complexes or very large springs. However, the springs in Mexico have been drastically altered by urban and agricultural development. Therefore, the Leoncita false-foxglove is very likely no longer present in at least one of the locations in Mexico.
The Case for Endangered Status
We in the Native Plant Society of New Mexico feel that the Leoncita false-foxglove should be established as an endangered species. Although the species is persisting at two places where protection is already provided, we believe that endangered status is necessary for several reasons:
1. The Preserve Protection Fallacy. Just because a species is found within a preserve does not mean it is adequately protected. Proper protection within that preserve implies proper management that specifically focuses on needs of the species whose existence is in jeopardy. Proper management may not be consistent over the years. There is also the possibility that some natural or unnatural event may permanently alter the unique characteristics of the habitat required for continued survival of the species.
The most serious threat to the habitats protected by Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Diamond Y Spring Preserve is depletion of the ground water supply that is the lifeblood of the cienegas. Many springs and ciénegas in the southwest have either dried up or the amount of ground water feeding them has been drastically reduced from what it once was due to agricultural and urban usage. The original Leon Spring near the Diamond Y Spring ceased to flow around 1958 due to excessive ground water pumping. A recent proposal was made to pump 47,418 acre-feet of water per year from a nearby west Texas aquifer.
Ground water pumping may also be a serious threat to false-foxglove populations at Bitter lake NWR. The New Mexico state engineer’s office hydrologist stated in 2005 that current ground water pumping levels would not affect the spring flows at Bitter Lake NWR unless drought conditions become greater than historic drought conditions. However, the implications of global warming suggest that these drought conditions will be exceeded in the future.
Another factor involves the management at Bitter Lake NWR. The refuge has been historically managed for waterfowl and in 1995 the refuge began to focus on management of the Pecos sunflower, which at the time was proposed for listing as a federally endangered species. The refuge has a network of ditches, canals and impoundments that have resulted in the fragmentation of the natural cienegas at Bitter Lake. The original ciénega has been fragmented and altered to the point there is likely less suitable habitat for the Leoncita false-foxglove. The point here is that there are conflicting management objectives at Bitter Lake. Endangered status for the false-foxglove would ensure that refuge management objectives include proper management in the form of suitable protection and recovery of the Leoncita false-foxglove.
Ecological Obstacles that Require Specific Management Strategies
Aggressive species like the common reed (Phragmites australis var. americanus) at Bitter Lake may crowd out or otherwise alter the required habitat of the Leoncita false- foxglove. The absence of large herbivores at both Bitter Lake and Diamond Y Spring have resulted in dense accumulations of plant material that may inhibit germination and establishment of plants like the false-foxglove. Specific management strategies like prescribed fire may be required to substitute for the absence of large herbivores in order to maintain the existing populations and assist in recovery of the species. Endangered species status would ensure that such specific ecological management strategies are utilized at the sites of the known populations.
2. Endangered Species Status
The Leoncita false-foxglove is currently listed as a Species of Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the state of New Mexico. Species of Concern status simply does not attract the attention of governmental agencies or produce the necessary funding required to perform the research and employ recovery strategies for the species. But endangered species status will require the necessary governmental attention. It will also generate funding for the necessary research and other activities required to assure the continued existence of the Leoncita false-foxglove and to provide for its recovery.
This last point cannot be overemphasized. We live in an era when the importance of government is continually discredited. We see government agencies that lack botanists to address their botanical problems. The one situation where we see that botanists are actually consistently employed to perform botanical work is through the Fish and Wildlife Service via the Endangered Species Act. Daniela Roth, the new state botanist with the NM Division of Forestry, says that her job only exists because of Section 6 ESA funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I recently met Ralph Fink, a U.S. Forest Service range conservationist, temporarily “detailed” to fill a vacant botanist position on the Lincoln National Forest. Ralph’s job is to focus on recovery plans for the federally endangered Sacramento prickly poppy (Argemone pinnatisecta). That’s because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a finding that the poppy is in “jeopardy.” Do you get the drift of this discourse? While there should be much more funding for professional botanists, the fact remains that the one source botanists can count on exists only because of the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
PETITION TO LIST THE LEONCITA FALSE-FOXGLOVE AS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES – A NPSNM FIRST
Now that we have made the case for endangered species status for the Leoncita false-foxglove, the Native Plant Society of New Mexico by a vote of its State Board of Directors in February, 2012 has chosen to do something it has never done before. We have made a petition addressed to Mr. Ken Salazar, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, requesting that the Leoncita false-foxglove be listed as an endangered species in accordance with provisions of the Endangered Species Act. You may view the petition here (PDF).
Sivinski, R.C. 2011. Agalinis calycina (Leoncita False-Foxglove): A Conservation Status Assessment. 2011 ESA Section 6 Progress Report prepared for the NM Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 2. (view)
Jim McGrath, Conservation Chair, NPSNM