While most people seem to appreciate the beauty of wildflowers, somebody in Nevada clearly doesn’t. Last weekend, more than 17,000 Tiehm’s buckwheat plants, a rare wildflower, were destroyed — deliberately. Some person or people used shovels to dig up, mangle and cut buckwheat taproots, seriously impacting all six subpopulations of the flower.

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“This is an absolute tragedy,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Tiehm’s buckwheat is one of the beautiful gems of Nevada’s biodiversity and some monster destroyed thousands of these irreplaceable flowering plants.”

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Tiehm’s buckwheat is a controversial wildflower. Ioneer Corp., an Australian mining company, wants to build an open-pit lithium mine in southwest Nevada. Lithium is a white metal used for making the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. The plan is for construction to begin in 2021, with the mine opening for business by 2023 and operating for at least 26 years. Ioneer Corp. expects an annual lithium production of about 20,600 tons each year.

But the lowly wildflower has been a roadblock, as the mining plan would pretty much wipe out Tiehm’s buckwheat. Federal agencies have also been involved. The Center for Biological Diversity accused the Bureau of Land Management of mismanaging the species and in 2019 petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This request is currently being reviewed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tiehm's Buckwheat, a rare species of wildflower, growing among rocks

Donnelly and Naomi Fraga, director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden, estimate that the weekend’s attack has destroyed approximately 40% of the species. “This appears to have been a premeditated, somewhat organized, large-scale operation aimed at wiping out one of the rarest plants on Earth, one that was already in the pipeline for protection,” Donnelly said. “It’s despicable and heartless.”

Fraga and Donnelly have recommended to federal and local authorities that the area around the remaining Tiehm’s buckwheat plants should be fenced with 24-hour security. If the survivors are stabilized, rehabilitated, propagated and transplanted, there’s still hope for this species to survive.

“I was absolutely devastated when I discovered this annihilation of these beautiful little wildflowers,” Donnelly said. “But we’re not going to let this stop our fight against extinction. We’ll fight for every single buckwheat.”

+ Center for Biological Diversity

Images via Sarah Kulpa/USFWS