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Environment & Energy

PA Dept. Of Conservation Hopes To Shift Dozens Of Rare, Threatened, Endangered Plant Classifications

Nati Harnik
AP Photo
In this June 29, 2017 photo, a green ribbon reading "Ash Tree at Risk" is tied around an ash tree in Omaha, Neb. The DCNR wants to classify the pumpkin ash as "Pennsylvania Endangered" due to damage by the invasive emerald ash borer.

Of the roughly 2,000 native plant species in Pennsylvania, 347 are currently considered rare, threatened or endangered. After two decades of research, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources wants to change the statuses of 51 plants.

The proposed updates include adding nine plants to a level of at-risk classification, such as the pumpkin ash. The tree has been a favorite of the emerald ash borer, an invasive species that puts Pennsylvania's 308 million ash trees at risk, according to the DCNR.

Nine plants would move from a lower risk classification to a higher one, two plants are being downgraded to a more secure status, and 31 plants would be removed from risk status, including the American lotus.

Ellen Shultzabarger, chief of conservation science and ecological research at the DCNR, says these recommendations are based on extensive data collection.

"We've been looking at the data over 20 years to help us see a distinct decrease in a species, or we've seen that this species is doing well and increasing more than just a flux that we saw," Shultzabarger said.

Labeling a plant species rare, threatened or endangered is a communicative process that signals the need for protection to the state and public. Shultzabarger said it can also impact the environmental permitting process, meaning development plans can be changed in an area based on the prevalence of at-risk species there.

Shultzabarger said common threats to native plants are invasive species and development.

"But some of them are just rare, like some of our orchids," she said. "They have specific habitat needs and any impacts to those habitats may cause those numbers to decline."

To protect Pennsylvania's native plants, the DCNR recommends people not pick wild plants and elect to plant natives rather than invasives in gardens.

A public comment period on the changes will be open until Christmas Day.