Endangered plant cabbage on a stick

Chris Waits via Flickr

Quick notes:

  • Plants have an image problem: People don’t care about them nearly as much as animals.
  • According to federal laws, it’s legal to destroy an endangered plant (if it’s not on federal land).
  • It’s not legal to do that for any endangered animals, by the way.
  • Plant conservation in the U.S. receives less than 5% of the Endangered Species Act’s funding, even though plants make up at least half of the species on its list.

The death of the world’s last male northern white rhino may draw headlines and worldwide tears, but no one’s talking about the single cabbage on a stick left in the wild or the Wood’s cycad that’s the last of its kind (those are both types of plants, just so you know).

But this isn’t just a minor publicity problem: Plants have long been considered second-class to animals (hey, even vegans don’t have a problem eating them), and it’s showing in the consistent understaffing and underfunding of plant conservation.

Unfortunately, plants are just as important to ecosystem health as animals, if not more.

Plants aren’t just a symbol of millennial success. They serve important ecological functions throughout the world: They feed basically all of us (including those precious animals we’re trying to save); they make the oxygen we breathe; they’re home to all kinds of species; and they do countless other things to keep our world functioning as we know it.

And yet, they’re an afterthought in conservation efforts.

Endangered plants aren’t treated equally by the Endangered Species Act

This summer, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bulldozed hundreds of endangered Braunton’s milk-vetch plants. There were already fewer than 3,000 of these rare plants left in the wild, which have only ever lived in a limited area around Los Angeles.

Braunton's milkvetch endangered plant habitatBraunton's milkvetch endangered plant habitat
Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Wikimedia Commons

Can you imagine them doing that to a bunch of grizzly bears? There would be a public uproar (pun always intended). Although, good luck bulldozing bears. Of course, this would certainly be illegal if the plants were swapped out for grizzly bears. But for endangered plants, it isn’t so cut-and-dried. You see, the Endangered Species Act (the primary federal conservation law in the U.S.) doesn’t offer equal protection to plants and animals.

It’s illegal to harm, harass, or kill any animal on the federal endangered species list, but plants don’t get the same protection unless they’re growing on federal land. As for all the endangered plants on non-federal lands (which is most of them), they must hope state or county laws protect them from being bulldozed.

However, that’s only the tip of the plants-aren’t-treated-equally iceberg.

“The biggest problem with plant conservation under the Endangered Species Act, and in general in the United States, is underfunding and understaffing to implement the laws that we actually have,” says Emily Roberson, director of the Native Plant Conservation Campaign.

Plants get a small portion of the already-underfunded conservation pie

Conservation science is basically juggling thousands of irons in the fire  — and some species are getting burned.

Right now, we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event on Earth. And while that probably brings to mind sad polar bears on lonely ice floes and dead rhinos making headlines, there are literally thousands of species disappearing.

In fact, at least 14,000 different types of plants across the world are threatened with extinction. Within the U.S., plants make up about half or more of the federal endangered species list. And yet, “less than 5% of the funding to implement the act is allocated to plants,” Roberson says.

Endangered plant orchid United States conservation
Endangered plant orchid United States conservation
Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images

Most of this funding comes from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, who — with Congress — decide where to use the Endangered Species Act’s money (which Roberson said is generally underfunded already).

Luckily, some of the funding extended to endangered animals can help conserve plants and their ecosystems since the Endangered Species Act protects the habitats of listed species. However, the Trump administration’s recently proposed changes to the act will likely limit its ability to safeguard endangered and threatened species  — so that’s kind of a big deal.

In the world of conservation science, even the jobs are rare

Just like there are plenty of endangered plants, botanist jobs are practically endangered as well. 

Government agencies (at federal and state levels) simply aren’t hiring many botanists. It’s a bit of a crisis, since so many plant scientists are retiring right now and no one’s being hired to fill their empty positions. So, I guess plant science majors are just as screwed as everyone getting an arts degree!

But while the funding for those jobs disappears, the need for them does not. If anything, they’re more important now than ever.

“You need people watching native plant species and communities who know what they’re looking for to help protect our plant communities and ecosystems from all of these kinds of threats,” Roberson says. (On the other hand, if you don’t have anyone there to point out the problem, you can just pretend there isn’t one!)

She said there have been cases where untrained people mismanaged pieces of land post-wildfire. Without properly rebuilding the native plant community, the land succumbed to flooding, erosion, and the somber feeling of neglect.

“People don’t really notice plants. They take them for granted. They don’t understand the great benefits that they give to humanity … and they’re not really willing to help them out,” says Joyce Maschinski, vice president of science and conservation for the Center for Plant Conservation.

Endangered plant conservation California
Endangered plant conservation California
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

All right, so why should we care about plants?

While living things shouldn’t have to justify their very existence to humans just for the right to live on the same planet as us, plants do make a pretty good case for themselves.

They help clean air and water, produce oxygen, prevent flooding and erosion, provide a habitat for other living things, take carbon dioxide out of the air, give people inspiration for new medicines, and look damn good on that shelf in your apartment. Unfortunately, native plant communities are suffering from logging, mining, invasive species, climate change, and, of course, being bulldozed for construction.

But how much does one plant species really matter in the grand scheme of things?

Well, the rivet hypothesis offers a possible explanation — it compares ecosystems to airplanes, saying each species is like a rivet on an airplane: The plane may be able to keep flying after losing a few, but it’s a gamble to keep removing them. So, the question is, how many licks does it take to get to total ecosystem collapse?

“Plants are the foundations of ecosystems. Right now we’re in the process, globally and in the United States, of dismantling all of these ecosystems, taking out all the rivets in that airplane,” Roberson says. “We’re already seeing food webs starting to come apart and stop functioning. Our air quality is suffering. Our water quality is suffering. Pollinators are disappearing. We’re seeing more severe storms and the coasts are being washed away because there aren’t native plant communities there to protect them.”

But never mind logic, perhaps we just need pictures of sad cycad trees on lonely ice floes to make people care.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

Large, ugly fish have the same image problem as endangered plants.

If only millennials’ love for houseplants extended to the ones outside.

Native plant communities are probably wishing every day was Earth Day.