A Rare Sand Dune-Dwelling Plant in Southern Oregon May Soon Be Protected by the Endangered Species Act

Sand dune phacelia is threatened by off-road vehicle use, invasive species, climate change and rising sea levels.

A rare plant that grows in the coastal dunes of Southern Oregon may soon be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made an official proposal to protect the sand dune phacelia, which is now only found in Coos and Curry counties as well as Del Norte County in Northern California. The agency is also seeking to designate 252 acres in those areas as critical habitat for the species.

“This is encouraging progress for this beautiful plant,” Quinn Read, Oregon policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, stated in a press release. “The sand dune phacelia simply can’t survive without Endangered Species Act protections. This proposal is a hopeful and long-overdue step toward making sure this species doesn’t disappear.”

The sand dune phacelia, a member of the forget-me-not family of flowering plants that grows to be around 18 inches tall, is on the decline for multiple reasons. The Center for Biological Diversity cites off-road vehicles, invasive species like European beach grass and gorse, climate change and rising sea levels. Its small population size makes it even more susceptible to these stressors.

Protecting the plant would come with an added benefit: the health of bees. Scientists have found that the number and variety of bee species in dune vegetation are higher in places where phacelia grows.

With additional safeguards in place, the plant could begin to thrive since it’s well adapted to the harsh coastal environment given its silvery hairs, which keeps salt off of its leaves, decreases water loss and reflects excess light.

The move to place the phacelia under the Endangered Species Act came after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2020.

The legal challenge stated that the agencies, particularly FWS, had failed to list imperiled species as endangered or threatened in a timely manner, resulting in further species declines, an increased risk of extinction and a costlier recovery process. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the FWS had a backlog of more than 500 species in limbo, all of which exceeded the statutory deadlines of the Endangered Species Act. Listing decisions are required to be completed within 12 months.