To Protect Rare Virgin Islands Plants, an Environmental NGO Holds Government Feet to the Fire

Agave eggersiana is a relative of the century plant. Center for Plant Conservation photo by Jennifer Possley.

Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has known for many years that the St. Croix agave (Agave eggersiana) and the Marron Barcoba (Solanum conocarpum) are circling the drain to extinction in the Virgin Islands, why has there been no serious effort to get these imperiled plants federally listed so they can be protected under terms of the Endangered Species Act? When the Center for Biological Diversity posed that question in a Federal court, the agency had no ready answer, nor any choice but to sign an agreement to get busy with the task and reimburse the NGO’s legal expenses (more than $50,000).

The downhill slide for the two plant species began long ago with land clearing and habitat destruction associated with cotton and sugar cane cultivation, and the plants have been rare for decades. The U.S. Virgin Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources finally petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1996 to protect both species. Two years later, the agency determined that the petition “presented substantial scientific information to support listing.” The agency accordingly committed to issuing a final finding on whether the species should be listed.

The finding was to have been announced in nine months, but when six years went by with no action the Center for Environmental Diversity got thoroughly fed up and filed a lawsuit in 2004. The agency agreed to publish a finding in 2006, and it did so. However, the finding it reached was so obviously inappropriate that it stunned many observers. Disregarding the obvious facts, and ignoring the advice of its own experts, the agency ruled that neither species should be listed.

Filing yet another lawsuit in 2008, the Center for Environmental Diversity took the agency back to court. This action yielded an agreement under which the Fish & Wildlife Service will propose a listing rule for the A. eggersiana by September 17, 2010, and a listing rule for S. conocarpum by February 15, 2011.
The overwhelming weight of the empirical evidence provides the agency with no more wiggle room. These are two plant species in very serious trouble in the wild.

Agave eggersiana is a large (up to 23 feet tall) perennial herb that is native only to the island of St. Croix (hence the common name St. Croix agave) and grows only in the dry scrub thickets of hillsides and plains on the eastern side of the island. These days the plants are propogated in nurseries – you can view them at the St. George Village Botanical Garden on St. Croix -- but there may be few, if any, still growing in the wild. Grazing and habitat disturbance by feral pigs and goats pose a serious threat to any plants still growing in Virgin Island National Park. Residential and tourism-related development and the local practice of periodically burning off vegetation imperil the small number of plants that may still be left on private land. If the species is to survive in the wild, it will be necessary to nursery-propagate the plants and reintroduce them to suitable protected habitat.

Solanum conocarpum
, a thornless flowering shrub that grows up to 9 feet tall, is native only to dry deciduous forest on the island of St. John. It is thought that there may be as few as 220 of the plants growing mainly in two areas, including about 150 or so plants in the Nanny Point area of Virgin Islands National Park. Threats to the plants in the park include feral animals (pigs, goats, Key deer, and donkeys) and maintenance activities for trails and facilities. (An NPS-funded project launched in 2003 propogates S. conocarpum for reintroduction within the park.) As with A. eggersiana, the S. conocarpum on private land are threatened by habitat destruction accompanying residential and tourism-related development.

Additional information about the two plant species and the 2008 lawsuit can be found on the Center for Biological Diversity website.

Postscript: The small number of remaining S. conocarpum plants is particularly troublesome because the plant is thought to be functionally dioecious – that is, it is believed to have male and female flowers on different plants. If true, higher numbers of plants would be needed to insure effective reproduction.