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To save rare wildlfower, feds agree to protect Southern Arizona wetlands

A rare wildflower will be protected in 13 acres of Southern Arizona wetlands where it can still be found, after federal officials agreed to try to save it under the Endangered Species Act.

The areas include La Cebadilla, a chunk of wetland just east of Tucson, where the Arizona eryngo survives in the permanently wet habitat.

In 2018, Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the extremely rare plant that can only be found in year-round riparian areas, known as ciénegas. Related to the carrot, the Arizona eryngo — sometimes called the ribbonleaf button snakeroot — can grow more than five feet tall, and is topped by spiky cream-colored flowers.

Named "Eryngium sparganophyllum" in Latin, the flowers rely on ciénegas, which have a "high archaeological and biological value" and provide critical refuge for fish, amphibians, invertebrates, and migratory birds in the arid landscape, the environmental groups said. However, over the last 150 years, ciénegas have been "greatly reduced," and "many are now only remnants with a precarious future in the absence of protection and restoration efforts."

The FWS decision comes as the Southwest faces a historic drought, and there remain serious questions about the long-term effects of climate change on species throughout the region.

Following the center's petition, the federal agency produced a draft rule last year to protect the flower and the ciénegas along with nearly 13 acres of land.

"I’m so glad these big, beautiful plants and the rare cienega habitats where they live are getting these badly needed protections,” said Robin Silver, a co-founder and board member at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a news relase Thursday. "The eryngo gives us one more reason to save the San Pedro River," he said.

Following surveys across the eryngo's historic range, Fish and Wildlife officials found it had largely gone extinct in all but two ciénegas: Lewis Springs, which sits in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area just south of Sierra Vista, and La Cebadilla, a small wetland next to the Tanque Verde Wash near Tucson.

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Covering nearly 40 miles of land stemming from the U.S.-Mexico border to just south of Sierra Vista, the San Pedro Riparian area is protected under the Bureau of Land Management.

Meanwhile, La Cebadilla is tucked into lands owned by the eponymous housing development and Pima County's Regional Flood Control District.

The center said the Lewis Spring site is under two acres in size, and is "highly important from a biodiversity standpoint but also highly threatened by groundwater depletion." Meanwhile, Cebadilla is three acres and sits among a ten-acre "altered wetland complex."

While the eryngo used to be found at one site in New Mexico, it has now gone extinct. Similarly, the plant has disappeared from two sites in Mexico, including Rancho Agua Caliente in Sonora, and Ojo Varele, a private hot spring in Chihuahua.

In their petition, the center and the Audubon Society argued the Arizona eryngo was under "high magnitude imminent threat of extinction due to habitat degradation from declining groundwater levels, drought, and climate change," adding the flower was "one of the most endangered plants in the state."

FWS agreed, writing in a decision last year the Arizona eryngo should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, and decided to expand the protected area at the Lewis Springs site to nearly 10 acres.

"We have determined that the Arizona eryngo is primarily at risk of extinction due to habitat changes: Physical alteration of ciénegas, water loss, and changes in co-occurring vegetation, all of which are exacerbated by the effects of climate change," FWS officials wrote.

"Both of these sites need immediate protective measures to ensure the surface water availability" the ernygo needs for survival, FWS wrote last year.

While there's been an ongoing effort to bring the plants back to Pima County's Agua Caliente Park about four miles away from La Cebadilla, Fish and Wildlife determined while "a handful of plants now exist," the effort has not been able to establish a "viable" population. 

While the group praised the FWS decision, environmentalists remained worried about the Arizona eryngo's future along the San Pedro River because the groundwater pumping for the growing population of the Fort Huachuca-Sierra Vista has resulted in a declining water table. 

"The groundwater overdraft in the Fort Huachuca-Sierra Vista loses more than 5,000 acre-feet per year," the center said. "All recent hydrology studies predict the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area will disappear if the unsustainable water drawing continues."

"More than 95 percent of the ciénegas habitats the eryngo and many other species need to survive have already been lost," the center said. "Both sites where the flower survives are threatened by groundwater overuse to support sprawling human populations."

"Arizona eryngo is a bellwether for the San Pedro River," said Silver. "We can’t keep withdrawing more groundwater than is returned in Sierra Vista, or anywhere else in Arizona, and expect these irreplaceable and imperiled species to survive."

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Elizabeth Makings/Center for Biological Diversity

Arizona Eryngo visited by a tiny checkerspot butterfly.