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The Santa Cruz Island Dudleya is an Endangered Species Act success story


On December 28, 1973, the Endangered Species Act became law - 50 years now of conservation and controversy. We're going to spend the first part of the program this morning marking the law's milestone. And to kick us off, well, close your eyes.

HEATHER SCHNEIDER: Picture that you're standing on a blustery, rocky coastal terrace.

RASCOE: Imagine for a second that you're on the Channel Islands, miles off the Southern California coast.

SCHNEIDER: The ground is flat but rocky, and you can feel the wind and fog hitting your face. If you look down, you'll see the Santa Cruz Island Dudleya between some of those rocks.

RASCOE: That's Heather Schneider. She's a rare plant conservation scientist, and she helped save the Santa Cruz Island Dudleya, which was listed as threatened in 1997.

SCHNEIDER: The plants are less than 6 inches tall, and they have chubby, fleshy, sort of club-shaped leaves crawling up the flowering stem. Those leaves are red by the time the plants are starting to bloom. And at the top of the stem, you'll see a bright-white, star-shaped flower with a highlighter-yellow center.

RASCOE: So how did this plant become endangered?

SCHNEIDER: The Channel Islands were subject to almost two centuries of impacts from introduced herbivores. So these were animals like sheep, pigs and cattle that were brought over by ranchers and other people. In the case of the Dudleya, it was largely pigs that were rooting around, turning up the soil and upturning plants altogether. And within the last few decades, the owners and managers of the Channel Islands removed most of those non-native animals. And the Santa Cruz Island Dudleya is one that came back quite well and now has become delisted.

RASCOE: So did people just leave? Or was it a part of a kind of an organized effort to get people to save this plant?

SCHNEIDER: It was a big effort, and it included not only removing the animals but then teams of scientists over decades monitoring these plants, trying to understand how they were recovering, and if there is anything else we needed to do to help them, understanding the reproductive biology of the plants. So do they need pollinators to make seeds? And are they making seeds successfully? Because we want to make sure not only that we see a lot of plants in one year but that we see evidence that these populations are going to be self-sustaining into the future.

RASCOE: Some people listening may think, what does it benefit someone who's maybe sitting in Syracuse, N.Y., or, you know, someplace in Vermont that this plant on the Channel Islands was saved?

SCHNEIDER: So in conservation, we talk about ecological networks. And just like all the systems in your body, all the systems in nature are connected. And when you pull out one of those pieces, the network doesn't work as well anymore. And so in the case of rare plants, we often find that they perform unique functions in the ecosystem. They might be an important pollinator nectar resource, or herbivores use them during a certain time of year when other plants aren't available. So if we lose them, we could be losing something really important, and we don't even understand what that impact will be until it's too late to fix it.

RASCOE: Now that the species has been delisted, does that mean that the recovery efforts are over, and you could just focus on other things now?

SCHNEIDER: Conservation is a long-term goal. We are never really done, and that's true for plants that are delisted, too. Part of the delisting process includes developing what's called a post-delisting monitoring plan for checking up on these plants over usually a decade or more to make sure that once we stop putting so much effort into them that things don't decline really quickly.

RASCOE: Do you find that it's harder to get people to care about endangered plants versus, like, caring about, like, the spotted owl or whatever? You know, like, is it harder to get people to care about plants?

SCHNEIDER: I think it can be. I think plants are sort of the backdrop to our lives - that we see them every day. We eat them. We wear them. We use them to build our homes. But we don't necessarily think about them in specific ways. But I think that given the opportunity to get into nature and to learn a little bit more about plants - and I'm talking real small barrier to entry here - I mean, you've got a house plant. You're a vegetarian, so you realize how much plants mean to you. You go for a walk in a park near your house. The more you start paying attention, the more you realize that plants are the foundation of so much of our lives. They're so important, and they're incredibly beautiful. I mean, so many traditions are tied to plants. Like, people have a Christmas tree. That's a plant. And so I think it can be an uphill battle because they're not cute and fuzzy. But if you start to look around, you'll realize you can't live without them.


RASCOE: Heather Schneider now has her sights set on getting another rare plant delisted - the Santa Cruz Island bushmallow, a large shrub with pink, cup-shaped flowers. She's optimistic that the bushmallow is close to recovery and says that the political will, environmental protections and financial resources afforded by the Endangered Species Act make that possible. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.