12:10pm

Mon February 7, 2011
Environment

A Growing Risk? Endangered Plants For Sale Online

A new study suggests that it is surprisingly easy to get your hands on an endangered plant. That's letting some activists engage in their own efforts to help save rare species from extinction. But some conservation experts worry that there are potential risks when private groups unilaterally decide to move their favorite plants to new habitats.

"There's been a lot of attention to the trade of endangered animals. There's been less attention to the trade of endangered plants," says Patrick Shirey, from the department of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

Recently he and a colleague did an internet search using the phrases "seeds for sale" or "plants for sale" to see how many of the plants listed as endangered and threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act can be purchased online.

They found that around 10 percent were being advertised online, according to a recent report in the journal Nature. More than 50 sellers were offering to ship these plants between states, which is illegal interstate commerce under federal law without a permit.

Other sellers were offering these plants for sale in-state, which is legal. However, once a person obtains a plant, it's easy to move it around, Shirey says. It's legal, for example, for someone to drive to a nursery in one state, purchase an endangered plant, and then drive it to another state.

"You could drive to South Carolina and bring a plant up to Maryland and you would not be violating federal law," says Shirey.

What's more, people own any endangered plants on their property, and can give them as gifts to anyone. That's because federal laws treat endangered plants very differently than endangered animals.

"It dates back to a very old tradition of how we treat species," says Shirey. "Under common law, the person that owned the land owned the plants that were on the land, whereas the king owned the animals under English law."

'Assisted Migration' Creates Opportunity For Problems

All of this means that people can legally do things that could potentially create real ecological problems, he says. Moving plants to different habitats could spread plant diseases, or some plants could adapt to their new home too well and become invasive weeds.

But with climate change looming as a possible new threat, some experts worry that concerned citizens will be more and more tempted to try to save a beloved species by transplanting it to someplace more hospitable.

One group, called the Torreya Guardians, organized with the help of a writer and naturalist Connie Barlow, is already doing this kind of "assisted migration" for an endangered evergreen known as Torreya taxifolia, or Florida stinking cedar.

Currently, this tree's native range is in northern Florida, where fewer than a thousand grow wild along a stretch of the Apalachicola River. But starting in 2008, the Torreya Guardians planted seedlings from private sources onto privately-owned land in North Carolina.

"I have a mystical side to me where I spent time communing with the plant, and trying to get a sense of what it wanted," says Barlow, who felt an affinity to this ancient species. She believed it wanted to leave Florida and migrate northward, where it might be more likely to survive climate change.

"I felt I was the only advocate," says Barlow. "I was the only one who was going to say it's not sufficient to just spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to find a way to make this plant be able to live again in the panhandle of Florida. I said, 'I can do it for zero money, working with fellow volunteers, and we can legally give his plant a chance.' "

Her view is that the tree probably lived northward during the previous warm times of the last 2.5 million years, and her group is simply returning it to an older range.

Citizen actions that involve moving around endangered plants into new habitats worry Mark Schwartz, a plant ecologist at the University of California, Davis.

"It takes a lot of thought and probably some science to understand the risks there," he says. "And volunteers generally aren't going through that assessment process. They're going out and doing things."

Still, Schwartz understands why they want to do something. He says far more money is spent on helping cute and fuzzy endangered animals than plants.

"The endangered species act is rather anemic with respect to accomplishing the job of protecting plants," he says. "It encourages people to take this job onto their own shoulders, so there's a tension there."

Schwartz says private citizens can help native plants, by pulling weeds or conserving their land, but when it comes to resettling a plant in a new area, he urges caution and says conservation groups need to come up with guidelines to help keep plant lovers from inadvertently making big mistakes. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.