Rare wildflower could scuttle plan for Nevada lithium mine
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.