Though Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) thrive in captivity, they’re now rare in the wild, with only a few viable native populations still found on the wet savanna of the coastal plain of North and South Carolina. They’re endangered by habitat loss, fire suppression and poaching, but currently have no federal protection.
Donald Waller is seeking an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing for the Venus flytrap, a process far more challenging than in the past partly due to political opposition to new listings, and also U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget cuts.
ESA Protection, it turns out, is more complete for animals: protecting them on both public and private lands. But ESA listed plants are only fully protected on public lands; with no federal penalties for harm done on private property.
In addition to ESA protection, Waller and other botanists suggest creating a Venus flytrap visitor center where people can enjoy the plants in the wild; or optionally setting aside some of the money paid for cultivated flytraps to protect wild flytrap habitat; or perhaps even offering the plant National Monument status.
After more than three decades as professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Donald Waller is a student again. He has dived into a baffling sea of bureaucracy to learn how to petition the US government to get Endangered Species status for the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).
“Only about one-fifth of remaining Venus flytrap populations exist in sufficient numbers to be viable,” says Waller. “It’s on the razor’s edge now: We need to move quickly to protect this species.”
An ecologist by training, Waller hopes to bring science to bear on policy. His goal is to get all the paperwork for an Emergency Listing of the flytrap ready by September. He and his colleagues argue that this species –– a popular meat-eating plant that enthralls kids and adults alike –– clearly merits an ESA (Endangered Species Act) listing. Such a move should build support to conserve habitats that protect other species as well.
Mongabay: The Venus flytrap has long been considered a species of concern by the IUCN. What’s the rush to get this plant listed as federally Threatened or Endangered?
Don Waller: Few plants eat animals, and we have a unique evolutionary heritage here as snap traps only evolved once.
But the Venus flytrap is highly vulnerable for several reasons. First, it is extremely localized, only growing in the wet savannas of coastal plains in southeastern North Carolina and bits of South Carolina. This is the only place in the world where flytraps grow wild — within about 60 kilometers [37 miles] of Wilmington, North Carolina. This region continues to experience rapid land development, causing the flytrap to lose habitat. [Editor’s note: “Wild” populations grow in both Florida and New Jersey, but scientists consider these populations to be planted].
Another key threat to the Carolina Venus flytraps is poaching. People love to buy and grow flytraps, but buyers don’t have any easy way to tell whether the plants they buy are legitimately propagated. Despite efforts to stop poaching, it continues.
Together, development and poaching have caused catastrophic declines in the number of flytraps and flytrap populations over the past 35 years.
Several of the remaining populations are formally protected, but these face another threat: fire suppression. Without burns, woody plants and shrubs will grow in, and shade the flytraps out. Succession kills these plants just as surely as poachers ripping them out of the soil.
Mongabay: The Venus flytrap already has status as a “Species of Concern” with the federal government, and it’s now a felony to poach these plants in North Carolina. So what’s so hard about saving this plant?
Don Waller: Unfortunately, “Species of Concern” is a designation that gives no formal protection under the law.
Ecologists and conservation biologists know how important it is to maintain big healthy populations. Once populations are reduced to small sizes, they are in serious jeopardy, vulnerable to genetic problems like inbreeding and local accidents. To maintain viable populations, we need to protect areas big enough to sustain several thousand plants.
Only about nine Venus flytrap populations are that big, so these core populations need to be fully protected. These populations are skating close to the edge now: we need to move quickly to save this species.
But listing species as Threatened or Endangered has become more cumbersome in recent decades, both because there is often political opposition to new listings and because of budget cuts to staff at the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The whole process used to be quicker. In the 1980s I did fieldwork on Furbish’s lousewort (Pedicularis furbishiae), one of the first species to be declared endangered after the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. Like the Venus flytrap, this plant is also a very local endemic, existing only on the northern banks of a 100-mile stretch of the St. John River in Northern Maine.
Mongabay: What happens if your petition is successful?
Don Waller: It will help immensely to protect remaining populations and to ensure that the habitats that sustain those populations are managed properly. But even with these steps, we face another curious obstacle to saving this wonderful plant.
It turns out, for historical reasons, even if the Venus flytrap is listed as a federal Endangered Species, it still will not get the protection we grant to all endangered animal species. Endangered animals get full protection under the law on both public and private lands. But endangered plants are not protected on private lands. It’s a legacy of English common law that animals belong to the Crown, but plants belong to the land or property.
A federal ESA listing would protects the Venus flytrap completely on public land, such as its habitat in North Carolina’s Croatan National Forest, but not on private property. For example, if you killed a federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker on your private property, even accidentally, you could get a large fine and a prison term. But there’s no penalty for inadvertently eradicating an endangered plant on your own land.
So we need to move forward first to ensure that the Venus flytrap is listed as Threatened or Endangered and gets protected under the ESA. Then the next chapter of this story will be what happens on private lands.
Will people celebrate these plants that have turned the evolutionary tables and eat animals instead of being eaten? Will we see tourists coming to visit Venus flytraps in the wild? Will we see the big market in cultivated flytraps regulate itself by ensuring that only legal propagated plants are sold — perhaps with a special, even optional, fee on each purchase to allow some of the money spent on these fascinating plants to go back to protecting its wild habitats? That would be a wonderful mechanism for conserving this plant.
There’s even talk of trying to get the flytrap declared a National Monument.
The only way we’ll be able to continue celebrating the Venus flytrap as a wild species is if we take steps now to protect its few remaining populations and habitats.
For more on the topic:
Current ESA listed species summary: