Story at a glance

  • Tiehm’s buckwheat is a rare flowering plant found in a remote region of Nevada that is potentially threatened by the mining of lithium, which is used to power electric cars.
  • Ioneer, an energy company mining lithium in the area, says it is working closely with the federal government to protect the plant.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is assessing whether the plant will be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Tiehm’s buckwheat, a rare flowering plant, was named for the man who first collected the species less than half a century ago. Now, just decades after Arnold Tiehm first collected this species, it’s being threatened by lithium mining — an essential mineral used to power electric cars. 

"There's so much damn lithium on Earth it's crazy," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during a shareholder meeting last year, postulating that Nevada's supply could supply the entire country. 

All that lithium, however, sits underground the Silver Peak Range of southwest Nevada, a remote part of the state that is home both to this valuable mineral and a rare plant: Tiehm’s buckwheat. In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that small mammals, driven by thirst during a recent drought, had damaged and killed many of the mature plants in the area — although human DNA found in the area has led some to suspect foul play. 


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After a lawsuit filed by an environmental group, the federal government is reviewing the plant for listing as an endangered or threatened species and granting protection under the Endangered Species Act, potentially threatening plans to mine the area. A proposed mine in Rhyolite Ridge could destroy up to 90 percent of the global population, says the group, which rang the bell on the destruction of the wildflowers. 

“We’re thrilled a federal judge agrees that Tiehm’s buckwheat is facing a dire emergency,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a release. “This is one of the most endangered plants in the United States. The federal government now has to follow through and protect this species before Ioneer’s mine drives it to extinction.”

A spokesperson for Ioneer, which is developing the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project, said the company rejects their opponents' "unsubstantiated claims" that the project could not move forward without protecting the plant. 

“Their outlandish accusations have been proven wrong before and they lack credibility. From the beginning, ioneer has worked closely with all parties involved, including Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to ensure decisions made regarding this important species are based on the best available science. Our commitment is to producing a first-class project that allows for the development of critical supply of lithium, while also ensuring the protection of the Tiehm’s buckwheat,” said the spokesperson by email. 

EDITORS NOTEThis story has been updated to include a statement from Ioneer. 


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Published on May 11, 2021