U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service | Southeast Region News Release
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Critical Habitat Not Proposed for Rock Gnome Lichen


April 6, 2001

Tom MacKenzie, 404/679-7291
Nora Murdock, 828/258-3939, Ext. 231

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed on April 5, 2001, not to designate critical habitat for the endangered rock gnome lichen, a species found in only 35 sites in the southern Appalachian Mountains, because publication of the species' location could increase illegal collection and vandalism, a major threat to its survival. A final decision will be made following a public comment period.

The rock gnome lichen is a grayish-green species in the reindeer moss family found only in North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, where it occurs on high-elevation cliffs or in deep river gorges where the humidity is always high. This species is the only member of its genus occurring in North America; the other two species occur in the high mountains of Japan and Eastern Asia, including the Himalayas.

Rock gnome lichen is primarily limited to vertical rock faces and large streamside boulders where it receives a moderate amount of light. Very little specific information is known on the life history and population biology of the species. No one has succeeded in propagating it. Although populations are declining for reasons that are, in many cases, not clearly understood, the major threats to the remaining populations are collecting and vandalism, recreational overuse of some habitats, and an exotic insect pest that is destroying conifer forests adjacent to the high-elevation sites. While it has not yet been proven to be a threat to this species, air pollution is a serious problem for many lichens and may yet be found to be affecting this one. Of the 35 known populations of this species, all but seven are less than 2 square meters in size.

Due to the species' history of population loss and the vulnerability of the surviving populations, the Service listed the rock gnome lichen as endangered on January 18, 1995. The published rule included a determination that the designation of critical habitat was "not prudent" for the lichen because, after a review of all available information, biologists believed that such a designation would not be beneficial to the species and would increase the threats of collecting, vandalism, and incidental habitat degradation caused by curiosity seekers.

"Since a critical habitat designation would not add any additional regulatory protection to the species and would give vandals and illegal collectors a map of where the species is located, we decided not to designate critical habitat in 1995," said Sam Hamilton, the Service's Regional Director for the Southeast Region. "Upon further review, we found that this reasoning still stands."

Critical habitat refers to specific geographic areas that are essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management considerations. However, this designation does not set up a preserve or refuge nor does it affect activities on private land that have no federal involvement. Its protection only applies to situations where federal funding, authorization, or land is involved.

The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project and the Foundation for Global Sustainability filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Service, on June 30, 1999, challenging the Service's "not prudent" critical habitat determination for the rock gnome lichen and three other species.

On February 29, 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice entered into a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs in which the Service agreed to reexamine its prudency determination and submit to the Federal Register, by April 1, 2001, a withdrawal of the existing "not prudent" determination for the rock gnome lichen together with a new determination as to whether the designation of critical habitat is prudent for the species.

The notice of the proposed finding published in today's Federal Register is the product of the Service's reexamination of the prudency determination for the rock gnome lichen. This notice reflects the Service's interpretation of recent judicial opinions on critical habitat designation and the standards placed on the Service by those opinions.

All the federal agencies and other landowners involved have been made aware of the lichen's location on their lands.

Even before the lichen was listed, the Service had been working with other federal and State agencies and private researchers, landowners, and others to carry out research and other conservation and recovery activities for the rock gnome lichen, including identifying activities that threaten the species and its habitat and carrying out measures to eliminate these threats and to effectively protect remaining sites.

The Service is soliciting data and comments from the public on all aspects of the notice of the proposed finding to not designate critical habitat for the rock gnome lichen. Comments should be submitted to the State Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Asheville Field Office, 160 Zillicoa Street, Asheville, North Carolina 28801, by June 4, 2001. Additional information may be obtained from the Asheville Field Office by contacting Ms. Nora Murdock at 828/258-3939, Ext. 231, or e-mail nora_murdock@fws.gov.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System which encompasses more than 530 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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Atlanta, GA 30345

Phone: 404/679-7289 Fax: 404/679-7286

2001 News Releases

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