A state at risk: What’s left in the garden, part 1

Despite a broad understanding of what it means when a plant or animal species is threatened or endangered, thousands remain at risk in New Jersey because the state has not finished adopting rules or committed the resources needed to protect them.

“Endangered species” in New Jersey are those that will become extinct here unless we intervene to save them; they are on the slippery slope to disappearing from our state. “Threatened species” are those that are at risk to become endangered unless circumstances change.

When we think about at-risk species, our first thoughts are often of animals. But plants are just as important to the biodiversity and environmental health of this state we live in. And the prospect for plants in the Garden State is frighteningly grim.

According to the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection’s Endangered Plant Species Populations in New Jersey: Health and Threats report released in 2006:

+ 15 percent of New Jersey’s 2,100 native plant species are listed as endangered;

+ Of the 331 plant species listed as endangered, 84 (or 25 percent) have not had a documented sighting since 2000; another 188, more than half, were found in only one to three places across the state;

+ Almost 75 percent of the endangered species could not be found on any state-protected land, which is significant because efforts to save species are more easily managed if they are on state land;

+ More than half of the species that have disappeared since 1980 were in the parts of the state that had the most development during that time.

While these are sobering numbers, the larger context is actually frightening. The report was based only on the list of endangered plant species established in 1980. In other words, it doesn’t take into account what may have become endangered since then, during an extended period of explosive development across the state.

The fundamental problem with any effort to preserve New Jersey’s native plant species is that we haven’t committed the necessary resources. The report acknowledges this shortfall and recommends more resources for survey, monitoring and management activities.

In addition, the rules protecting plant species are incomplete. There is no statewide standard; only in the Pinelands, Highlands and land subject to the state’s Coastal Area Facility Review Act are there rules protecting the habitat of at-risk plant species.

“Right now, there’s no central point for finding the plants on a given site,” said Dr. Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF). “What rules there are only protect stuff we already know about, that has been formally documented and that we can find again. When a development is proposed, there’s no requirement to ensure that objective, credentialed botanists survey for at-risk plants.

“Habitat is being altered so fast and so thoroughly that we have no idea what’s happening to many species,” DeVito said.

But once we know a species needs help, we can take steps to save it. At the Franklin Parker Preserve in Burlington County, for example, NJCF is working to reintroduce the federally endangered American chaffseed that once grew there. Once common in the Pine Barrens and found from Cape Cod to Virginia, the only population in the northeast U.S. remains near Burlington County’s Whitesbog Village in Brendan Byrne State Forest.

But gathering this information is the first, most critical step. Otherwise we run the risk of not even knowing all that we will have lost; and it will be no less a loss for our not knowing.

You can read the full N.J. Department of Environmental Protection plant report at www.state.nj.us/dep/dsr/plant/.

Michele S. Byers

Executive director

New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Far Hills