Rare wild­flower could scut­tle plan for Ne­vada lithium mine

Times Colonist - - Business - SCOTT SON­NER

RENO, Ne­vada — A botanist hired by a com­pany planning to mine one of the most promis­ing de­posits of lithium in the world be­lieves a rare desert wild­flower at the Ne­vada site should be pro­tected un­der the U.S. En­dan­gered Species Act, a move that new doc­u­ments show could jeop­ar­dize the project.

The un­usu­ally can­did dis­clo­sure is in­cluded in more than 500 pages of emails ob­tained by con­ser­va­tion­ists and re­viewed by The As­so­ci­ated Press re­gard­ing Ioneer Ltd.’s plans to dig near the only pop­u­la­tion of Tiehm’s buck­wheat known to ex­ist on Earth.

Six months of communicat­ions be­tween gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists, Ioneer’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives and Univer­sity of Ne­vada, Reno re­searchers study­ing the plant also show the di­rec­tor of UNR’s work — fi­nanced by Ioneer — re­peat­edly pushed back against com­pany pres­sure to pre­ma­turely pub­li­cize early success of ef­forts to grow buck­wheat seedlings in a cam­pus green­house for re­plant­ing in the wild.

“I’m not used to such a fo­cus on in-progress re­search,” Beth Leger, a bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor who also heads UNR’s Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, wrote in April.

“I feel like maybe one very im­por­tant thing isn’t clear, and that’s that these plants could die at any stage of this ex­per­i­ment.”

The ex­per­i­ment is part of Ioneer’s strat­egy in­tended to help avert a fed­eral list­ing of the plant that could scut­tle the mine.

The Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity, which pe­ti­tioned last year to list the plant un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act, ob­tained the doc­u­ments un­der a Ne­vada pub­lic records re­quest. It’s pub­lic in­for­ma­tion be­cause of UNR’s re­search con­tract.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice re­cently said it has enough sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion to war­rant a full-year re­view of the buck­wheat’s sta­tus 320 kilo­me­tres south­east of Reno to de­ter­mine whether it should be fed­er­ally pro­tected.

The emails in­clude an April ex­change with a Fish and Wildlife of­fi­cial who shared con­cerns ex­pressed by the head of Ne­vada’s own state list­ing re­view about Ioneer’s trans­plant­ing strat­egy.

“This doc­u­ment is at best a mit­i­ga­tion plan, certainly not a ‘pro­tec­tion plan,’ ” James More­field, su­per­vi­sory botanist for Ne­vada’s Di­vi­sion of Nat­u­ral Her­itage, wrote to the ser­vice April 16.

Ioneer has spent mil­lions at the site rich with lithium needed to man­u­fac­ture such things as bat­ter­ies for Tesla’s elec­tric cars.

Tiehm’s buck­wheat blooms at Rhy­o­lite Ridge in the Sil­ver Peak Range of Western Ne­vada.

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