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Critical Habitat Not Prudent for Rock Gnome Lichen


October 9, 2001

Christine Eustis, 404/679-7287

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not designate critical habitat for the endangered rock gnome lichen, a plant 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.

The rock gnome lichen is a grayish-green species of 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.

The lichen’s habitat is limited to vertical rock faces and large streamside boulders, where it receives a moderate amount of light. Little specific information is known on the life history and population biology of the species, and no one has succeeded in propagating it.

Although populations are declining for reasons that are not always clear, major known threats to remaining populations are collection and vandalism, recreational overuse of some habitats, and the destruction of nearby conifer forests by an exotic insect pest. While air pollution has not yet been proven to be a threat to this particular species, it is a serious problem for many lichens and may be affecting this one. Of the 35 known populations of this species, all but seven are less than 2 square meters in size.

The Service listed the rock gnome lichen as endangered on January 18, 1995 and determined at that time that the designation of critical habitat was “not prudent” for the lichen because such a designation would not be beneficial to the species and would likely increase the threats of collection, vandalism, and incidental habitat degradation, caused by curiosity seekers.

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.

On April 5, 2001, the Service published in the Federal Register its proposed finding that critical habitat designation for the rock gnome lichen would not be prudent.

The final finding that will be published in today’s Federal Register is the product of the agency’s reexamination of the “not prudent” determination for the rock gnome lichen and incorporates all comments received during the open comment period for the proposed finding. The finding reflects the Service’s interpretation of the recent judicial opinions on critical habitat designation and the standards placed upon the agency by those opinions for making a “not prudent” determination.

“A critical habitat designation would not add any additional regulatory protection to the species and would simply give vandals and illegal collectors a map of where the species is located,” the Service’s Southeast Regional Director Sam D. Hamilton said.

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, therefore, only applies to situations where federal funding, authorization, or land is involved.

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/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.

Additional information may be obtained from the Service's Asheville, North Carolina, field office by contacting Mr. Brian P. Cole at 828/258-3939, Ext. 223, or e-mail For a copy of the Federal Register notice, please visit the website:

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 94-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System that encompasses more than 535 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 70 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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Rock Gnome Summary

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2001 News Releases

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