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Rare Kauaʻi plant highlights endangered species recovery efforts : Maui Now

Cyanea rivularis. DOFAW mid-elevation rare plant nursery, Kaua‘i (Nov. 28, 2023). PC: DLNR

Its scientific name is Cyanea rivularis. In the mountains of Kaua‘i it produces conical-shaped lavender and white flowers, which like many endangered plant species across the state, are key components to a fully functioning and healthy native ecosystem.

As the 50th anniversary of the federal Endangered Species Act is celebrated this month, the Endangered Species Coalition chose Hawai‘i’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program as one of 10 outstanding efforts to recognize.

This was based on the discovery of a rare plant, Silene lanceolata, discovered by PEPP technician Susan Deans, last year, while rappelling on a remote cliffside.

All About the Hawai‘i Plant Extinction Prevention Program. VC: DLNR
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Matt Keir is the DOFAW lead for the PEPP program, which marks its 20th year of existence this year. Continued existence is what it’s all about, as the program’s target list contains more than 260 rare and endangered Hawaiian plants.

“We have almost half of all endangered plants in the United States. So, the level of rarity in Hawai‘i is unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. Plants make the list when fewer than 50 individual plants remain in the wild. PEPP has been incredibly successful in getting to plants before they go totally extinct. After two decades of work, we have seen about 30 different species go extinct in the wild but saved through cultivation and that’s been our biggest success,” Keir said.

The PEPP team on Kaua‘i is currently involved in an ambitious project to supplement the population of only three wild Cyanea rivularis plants left, with 2,500 cultivated plants at five different sites.

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Scott Heintzman, Kauaʻi PEPP Field Coordinator said, “Plants in the sites we’ve covered so far are doing great. We’ve maybe lost only two plants of 700 that are out now. Already, native honeycreeper birds are interacting with the plants and cross-pollinating individuals so we’re really seeing a rebound of this species. Itʻs doing great.”

At the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife mid-elevation rare plant nursery in the Koke‘e area, Keir, Heintzman, and PEPP Technician Susan Deans walk between rows of rare young plants. They identify each of them by their scientific names and indicate how many wild ones remain. Two here, five there, a couple dozen in other cases.

DOFAW mid-elevation rare plant nursery, Kaua‘i (Nov. 28, 2023) PC: DLNR

Deans said, “We don’t really consider the plants we bring from the nursery to be wild. The goal is for those plants to reproduce and then for seedlings to pop up underneath them, and then we would consider those to be wild. The goal is to create self-sustaining, healthy populations of species back into areas where they were once abundant. That happens once they’ve removed threats that knocked off wild plants in the first place.”

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Those threats include ungulates like pigs, which are kept out of sensitive re-planting areas by predator-proof fencing.

When asked why people should care about these rare, native plants, Heintzman said, “The easy answer is that we don’t really know what these plants can do for us as a human race in the future. We don’t know if these can contribute to science or medicine. Not only that, but a lot of these plants are also culturally significant. They were part of the Hawaiian toolbox, used over centuries for food and medicine.

The success of the PEPP program is due to tremendous collaboration with partners like Lyon Arboretum, which takes in seeds for propagation and storage. Keir said, “The best thing about this program has been the staff and partners. We work with an incredible group of talented people who are dedicated to doing really difficult field work. These people are the best of the best, who have dedicated their lives and careers to protecting Hawai‘i.”

“Helping recover these plants should be important to everyone. They are gems of creation. They’re special, beautiful plants and if we lose them, they’re gone. We’ll never get them back and that’s hard to swallow. Hawai‘i is a special place and most of these plants are found nowhere else in the world. To lose any of them is heartbreaking,” Heintzman added.

Keir concluded, “We have the tools, we have the knowledge, and we know what needs to be done. It’s just a question of, can we get to enough of them in time. Building our program across the state to keep pace with the ever-increasing extinction rate in Hawai‘i is key. If PEPP can intervene in time, we can collect seeds from wild plants and get them into cultivation before they die out and then re-establish them in the future. That’s been another one of PEPP’s major milestones and successes.”

Cliff Dwellers of Kaua‘i…and the People Who Hang with Them television special. VC: DLNR

Source: Maui News

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