Lawsuit Filed to Protect Rare Virgin Island Plants

For Immediate Release

Center for Biological Diversity
Contact: 

Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

Lawsuit Filed to Protect Rare Virgin Island Plants

ATLANTA - The Center for Biological
Diversity yesterday filed a lawsuit
in federal court in Atlanta challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's
failure to protect two rare Caribbean plants under the Endangered Species
Act. More than a dozen years have passed since a petition was submitted to list
the plants, Agave eggersiana and Solanum conocarpum, both of which are
near extinction in the wild.

"Due to the federal government's
failure to act, numerous species have gone extinct while awaiting protection
under the Endangered Species Act," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate
with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We hope this lawsuit will help ensure
these plants do not suffer the same fate."

In 1996, the U.S. Virgin Islands
Division of the Fish and Wildlife Service petitioned to protect Agave eggersiana and Solanum conocarpum - both of which are native to the U.S. Virgin Islands -
under the Act. In 1998, the Service agreed that there was credible information
to support listing, and agency officials committed to issuing a final finding
within nine months on whether the species should be listed. Six years later, the
Service still had failed to act on the issue. In 2004 the Center filed a
lawsuit, resulting in a settlement agreement requiring the Service to submit a
final finding by February of 2006. The Service then substantially changed its
position, disregarding the opinions of its own experts, and published a finding
in 2006 that stated neither species should be listed.

Agave eggersiana is a robust, perennial herb native only to hillsides and plains in the eastern dry
districts of the island of St.
Croix. It has large funnel- or tubular-shaped
flowers and can grow from 16 to 23 feet tall. Solanum conocarpum is
a thornless, flowering shrub that may reach more than 9 feet in height in dry,
deciduous forest on the
island of
St.
John.

Habitat for both plant species has disappeared due
to intense
deforestation for cotton and sugar cane cultivation. Now, residential and
tourism-related development and grazing by feral animals also threaten the
plants' habitats. Much of the suitable habitat for A. eggersiana is found on privately
owned land slated for residential development. The suitable habitat includes dry
scrub thicket, most of which has been severely degraded by feral goats grazing
and the practice of burning off vegetation. There may no longer be any remaining
A. eggersiana
plants in the wild; survival of the species may now depend on propagating
the plants in nurseries, then reintroducing them.

There are only about 220 S.
conocarpum
plants left
in the wild in two areas on St.
John - 156 plants at Nanny Point on land recently donated to the
Virgin Islands
National Park and 60 plants
on private land. A project funded by the National Park Service was initiated in
2003 to propagate and reintroduce S. conocarpum into areas within the
park. But the plants are threatened by management practices such as trail and
facility maintenance, as well as feral pigs, feral goats, Key deer, and donkeys.
The plants on private land are at risk from residential and tourism
development.

The small number of remaining S. conocarpum plants is particularly
troublesome because scientific information suggests the plant is functionally
dioecious - having male and female flowers on different plants - and may require
higher numbers in order to reproduce effectively.

Both plants can be viewed at the St.
George Village Botanical Garden on St.
Croix.

The Environmental Law Clinic at the
University of Denver and the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at
Emory
Law School are representing the Center for
Biological Diversity on the case.

The lawsuit and background
information on the plants species can be found on the Center for Biological
Diversity Web site at: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/plants/Virgin_Islands_plants/index.html

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