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Monday March 1st

Majority of endangered species in the U.S. are plants. Here's what that means for N.C.

<p>The North Carolina Botanical Garden is a conservation garden dedicated to the conservation of native plants. Photo courtesy of Emily Oglesby.</p>
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The North Carolina Botanical Garden is a conservation garden dedicated to the conservation of native plants. Photo courtesy of Emily Oglesby.

While many Chapel Hill residents devoted their attention to the Duke-UNC game on Saturday, Ken Moore was covering a shift at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.

Moore became the first full-time employee of the botanical garden in 1971. His love of nature and being outdoors has kept him coming back for so long.

“I love this garden,” he said. “I'm dedicated to it. And even though I retired, like in 2003, I've been here teaching a few classes and volunteer here and do a little contract work.”

Moore said he loves taking visitors around the garden and getting them excited about nature's displays. Now, as he grows older, he still gets excited every time he sees rare plants, such as the pink lady's slipper, which only blooms once a year.

“Every time I'm lucky enough to see it, I say – this sounds morose, but it's really, really special – I say, ‘Wow, look at that,’ and I wonder if I will see it ever again,” he said.

However, beyond his infatuation with nature, Moore said he also recognizes threats to the environment like extinction as credible issues.

“You see butterflies — you know, the monarch butterflies,” he said. “Is this the last one we're going to see? Are we seeing the last ones flutter away?”

Recently, the Trump administration has issued a number of changes to the Endangered Species Act that some environmentalists believe will be damaging to many endangered and threatened species.

One of these revisions to the act involves removing protections from threatened species, species that are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. North Carolina is home to 61 federally endangered and threatened species, of which 27 of are plants.

In the rest of the United States, plants make up over half of the 1,661 species listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA.

Johnny Randall, the director of conservation programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, said despite this discrepancy, listed plants already have fewer protections than animals. While animals are protected on both public and private property, plants are only protected on public property.

“It's the right of the landowner to do what they want with an endangered plant,” he said. “Say it was, for example, the last individual of a species growing on someone’s private land – they could legally pull it up out of the ground and throw it in the garbage, whereas they could not do that with, for example, a red-cockaded woodpecker."

This is especially concerning to Randall in North Carolina, where the vast majority of land is privately owned. Randall said many landowners are proud to have endangered plants on their property, but the ESA revisions could lead to even more species-destroying processes.

"The ESA rule changes are relaxed for development, mineral, gas exploration and extraction,” he said. “So there's a lot of potential for disaster, especially for plants who can't move around.” 

Lesley Starke, a spokesperson for the N.C. Plant Conservation Program, said these changes will have drastic effects on the plants, which already receive much less funding than endangered and threatened animals. 

“We're talking about a group that is the largest share of the species on the list,” she said. “We're talking about the species that are already starting out disadvantaged in terms of how protected they are, and now that we're talking about these changes, stripping any of that away is just concerning."

Starke said despite being essentially the base of almost every habitat, plants are often overlooked or ignored when it comes to species endangerment.

“People in general struggle to really see those plants as anything other than the background,” she said. “They don't really value the species right in front of them.”

Starke said she thinks people are more sympathetic to animals because they are more easily recognized as individual species rather than something in the background. 

Moore stressed the interconnectivity of animals and plants in a habitat. The destruction of an environment often leads to animals becoming endangered in the first place, he said, but people often ignore this until the animals are affected.

“People didn't start taking notice until we suddenly said, ‘What happened to the monarch butterfly or the honeybee?’” he said.

Going forward, Moore hopes people will be more conscious of this interconnectivity.

“We're putting ourselves out of business in a big way. A lot of people say, 'Oh, I'm worried about the Earth,'" he said. "I'm not worried about the Earth. The Earth is going to stay here. I am worried about the humans — well, I'm more worried about all the critters because we humans have messed things up."


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