April 25, 2023

Flower found in marshes of southern New Mexico listed as threatened

Photo by Robert Sivinski

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Wright’s marsh thistle, a type of sunflower found primarily in New Mexico, as a threatened species.

As part of the listing, which was announced this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 159 acres of land in seven areas as critical habitat.

The Wright’s marsh thistle is already listed as endangered at the state level. 

Some of the factors threatening the flower include livestock grazing, drought, oil and gas extraction, diversion of water and invasive plant species.

The plant is found in eastern New Mexico. In the Pecos River Valley, it has vivid pink flowers and dark green foliage. The western and southern populations of the Wright’s marsh thistle in New Mexico have white or pale pink flowers and pale green foliage. It can grow up to eight feet tall.

“Saving the Wright’s marsh thistle from extinction in a hotter, drier world would also help us protect humanity,” Michael Robinson at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release. “I’m so glad this pretty plant and its desert springs are finally getting badly needed protections. As the climate crisis builds, many of the steps we take to preserve species like this one will also help people cope with our rapidly changing planet.”

There are eight locations in New Mexico with confirmed Wright’s marsh thistle. These include slightly more than 100 acres of land in the Santa Rosa area in Guadalupe County, the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Chaves County, Blue Spring in Eddy County, La Luz Canyon, Karr/Haynes Canyon, Silver Springs and Tularosa Creek in Otero County and Alamosa Creek in Socorro County.

As its name implies, the Wright’s marsh thistle grows in marshy habitats where the soil is saturated year round. The plant often grows around alkaline springs and seeps both in the low desert and in ponderosa pine forests at higher elevations.

“Depending on life stage, Wright’s marsh thistle needs to have permanent root saturation; alkaline soils; full, direct, or nearly full sunlight; and abundant pollinators, including bumble bees,” the listing document published in the Federal Register states.

New Mexico’s marshes have been drying up due to changes in precipitation associated with climate change as well as agricultural practices such as diversions.

The marshes also attract animals including livestock and wildlife. Grazing of livestock in the plant’s habitat has led to cattle trampling the plant and feeding upon it. How much livestock grazing impacts the Wright’s marsh thistle depends in part on the timing. Winter grazing is less likely to impact the flower’s survival. Spring grazing could limit the plant’s height and survival while late summer and autumn grazing could reduce the number of seeds.

The common reed, a species introduced from Europe and Asia, is another threat to the Wright’s marsh thistle. The reed grows thick and increases the risk of wildfire while also competing with the native species for resources and changing the hydrology.

The listing decision also highlights a potential beryllium mine at Alamosa Springs and subsurface drilling and exploration of the mineral bertrandite on Sullivan Ranch near Alamosa Springs as potential threats to the plant in the future.

Oil and gas extraction and operations are also impacting the plant, including through potential water contamination.

“While laws and regulations related to water quality have reduced the risk of contamination in and near occupied locations from oil and gas production, a spill that could impact these habitats is still likely based on the high volume of oil and gas leases near the locations,” the Federal Register states.

Because the stands of Wright’s marsh thistle are small and localized, even a small spill could wipe out an entire population. There are only eight populations of the plant.