What is the proposed action?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing to reclassify the smooth coneflower from endangered to threatened and to establish provisions under section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to ensure the continued conservation of this species.
What did the Service consider in deciding to reclassify the smooth coneflower from endangered to threatened?
The Service conducted a thorough review of the best scientific and commercial information available, analyses of threats and demographics for the species. This review indicates that the smooth coneflower no longer meets the definition of an endangered species under the ESA.
What is the primary difference between an endangered and threatened species?
An endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction. A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.
What prompted the Service to propose this action?
In 2011, the Service conducted a Five-Year Status Review and found information indicating that progress has been made toward meeting the recovery goals for reclassification. The reclassification of the smooth coneflower is a success made possible by our partners in the states of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
How many populations of the smooth coneflower existed when it was first listed as an endangered species?
The reported historical range of the smooth coneflower included Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. When the Service listed the smooth coneflower as endangered in 1992, there were only 21 known populations in four states, a decline of 67 percent since the species was first discovered.
What are the recovery criteria for the smooth coneflower?
The recovery plan states that smooth coneflower should be considered for reclassification from endangered to threatened when 12 geographically distinct, self-sustaining populations are protected across the species’ range, including some populations in at least two counties in Virginia, two counties in North Carolina, two counties in South Carolina and one county in Georgia. Further, these populations should be stable or increasing with designated managers and management plans that have been implemented.
How are the populations of the smooth coneflower currently doing?
Progress has been achieved in recovery. There are currently a total of 44 populations (94 occurrences or sub-populations) throughout the species’ range which are considered protected. Sixteen of these 44 populations (36 percent) are considered resilient because they have excellent to good viability.
Each of the 44 protected population occurs on federal, state, county or private land, such as nature preserves owned by The Nature Conservancy, and each has an assigned land manager. These protected, resilient populations occur in three counties in Virginia, two counties in North Carolina, two counties in South Carolina, and one county in Georgia. Management plans have been developed and implemented for 13 of the 16 resilient, protected populations. Natural Heritage Program ranks indicate that these populations are stable or increasing.
What are the threats to the smooth coneflower?
Smooth coneflower is threatened rangewide by the suppression of fire and the ecological succession (competition and/or shading by woody species) that occurs in areas that are not burned on a regular basis. It is also threatened by timber operations. Sites located within utility rights-of-way are threatened by herbicide use and/or mowing during critical growth periods. The destruction of habitat, resulting from development or land conversion, also threatens this species, but to a lesser degree than the factors listed above.
Does the reclassification provide the Service with greater flexibility in its review of federal actions?
Yes, the ESA does provide for greater flexibility in identifying activities that are necessary and advisable for the protection of species listed as threatened. Reclassifying to threatened allows the Service to propose a section 4(d) rule for the species. 4(d) rules prohibit many actions detrimental to the species, but allow certain management actions that would otherwise be prohibited as long as they are conducted in the manner consistent with the recovery of the species. For instance, reintroductions and augmentation activities could be more easily permitted and conducted if the species is reclassified.
What does reclassification mean to other federal agencies?
The reclassification makes no change in how federal agencies consult with the Service on actions that may impact the smooth coneflower. For example, the Service routinely consults with the U.S. Forest Service. Any activity conducted, funded and/or permitted that might affect the smooth coneflower as a federally listed species would continue to require an ESA effects determination and possible consultation with the Service, regardless of whether it is listed as threatened or endangered. The same would hold true for transportation projects for which the states routinely consult with the Service and on military bases where it occurs.
Will this reclassification change how the smooth coneflower is managed?
- Implementing protective management:
- Use hand-clearing or prescribed fire to restore open habitats.
- Avoid mechanical clearing and logging. Protect roadside and right-of-way populations from herbicides and poorly timed mowing.
- Monitoring of existing populations
- Surveying of suitable habitat
- Reintroducing the plant within the historic range
- Entering into management and cooperative agreements
- Acquisition of suitable land
- Researching the species threats and biology
- Maintaining seeds and cultivated sources for the species
- Providing for long-term maintenance of selected populations in cultivation
- Ensuring continued levels of gene flow and high levels of diversity across the range of this species, keeping in mind that any loss of habitat can create geographic isolation, thereby posing potential risks to species by limiting gene flow among populations.
Would state protections be removed or reduced if the species is reclassified?
If smooth coneflower remains a listed species under the ESA and is reclassified as threatened, we do not expect any of the states to remove the associated legal protections for this species, such as prohibiting collection and removal, among other actions, on public and private lands. Also, land managers have not reported poaching as a significant threat to smooth coneflower populations, which mostly occur on protected federal lands and other conservation properties. If Smooth coneflower is reclassified as a threatened species, it will continue to be managed and protected as an ESA-listed species.
Does the public have an opportunity to comment on this decision?
Yes. A 60 day comment period started on June 24, 2021 and is currently underway until August 23, 2021. The Service contacted appropriate U.S. federal and state agencies, scientific experts and organizations throughout its range, and other interested parties directly and invited them to comment on the proposal. We also solicited peer reviews from knowledgeable individuals with scientific and conservation expertise that included familiarity with the plant, its habitat, biological needs, and threats. We will identify substantive comments and respond in the final rule.