Prostrate milkweed, a rare plant native to Texas and northeastern Mexico, is part of an import support system for bees and monarch butterflies. But now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering naming the plant an endangered species as humans destroy their critical habitats.
USFWS proposed the endangered species listing on Monday, saying they made their proposition based on the “best available status.”
Chris Best, a USFWS botanist in Texas, said that the prostrate milkweed’s flowers “attract and support native pollinators,” including large bees and wasps, and that it serves as a host plant for monarch butterflies.
“Unfortunately, this species is negatively impacted by competition from introduced buffelgrass and increased development in its native Tamaulipan shrubland habitat,” Best said.
We’re proposing to list the prostrate milkweed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, along with 691 acres of critical habitat in two Texas counties. https://t.co/pLAy5WLcgs Photo: Sam Kieschnick/CC BY 4.0. https://t.co/spSSGLciAT pic.twitter.com/RJMRoIO9Di — USFWS News (@USFWSNews) February 14, 2022
The agency also pointed to humans for depleting the resource, saying that root-plowing, border security and enforcement activities, energy development, road and utility construction, and right-of-way maintenance have resulted in habitat loss and degradation.
To help conserve the plant, the service has proposed nearly 700 acres of critical habitats in eight occupied areas in Starr and Zapata counties near the Rio Grande. Those areas were decided upon because they have features that are essential for the species’ conservation.
Currently, there are just 24 populations of the plant that remain in those counties, 19 of which are rated in low condition, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that has pushed for the protected status.
Milkweeds are a vital host plant for monarch butterflies, feeding monarch larva as they develop into butterflies. They also provide large quantities of nectar to bees and tarantula hawks, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“I’m hopeful that Endangered Species Act protection will keep the prostrate milkweed flowering in South Texas for generations to come,” Michael Robinson, who represents the organization, said in a statement. “This fascinating plant long ago secured a sunny niche in tough landscapes, but it’s being driven to the edge of extinction by human development. Federal action is crucial.”
The proposed rule was published on the Federal Register on Tuesday, where people can submit comments until April 18.
Environmentalists have long pushed for prostrate milkweed protection under the Endangered Species Act. There was a petition for the plant to be considered endangered in 2007, and in 2009, USFWS “found the petition presented substantial information that listing may be warranted.”
Protecting the milkweed could also help with bee conservation efforts.
In 2020, scientists concluded that climate change is killing bumblebees, finding that the likelihood of a bumblebee population surviving in a single location in North America and Europe has declined by an average of 30% within one human generation.
In Texas, honey production and bee colony numbers declined last year, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. The massive winter storm that shook the state in 2021 delayed wildflower bloom and killed bees, particularly in South Texas, as they were not acclimated to the sudden freezing temperatures, the service said. A lack of rain also contributed to a lack of food availability for the bees.