Furbish's lousewort is only found in northern Maine and western New Brunswick. This month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the plant from the federal endangered species list. Credit: Courtesy of Meagan Racey via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Almost a half-century after its endangered species status helped save a tiny northern Maine community, the furbish lousewort plant has made enough of a comeback for the federal government to downgrade its status to threatened.

Furbish’s lousewort is a nearly three-foot-tall yellow flower with fern-like leaves that grows only on the banks of the western end of St. John River in northern Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.

First identified in the late 1800s by Catherine Furbish, it was believed to be extinct by the mid-1900s. However, in 1976, Furbish’s lousewort was discovered in northern Maine on the site where construction of a hydropower dam was proposed. The plant was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1978.

At the town level, municipal shoreland zoning regulations now limit or prohibit development and agricultural practices in Furbish’s lousewort habitat areas. Ongoing state and private conservation projects are also working to restore damaged habitat. The efforts have been successful.

There are now 20 subpopulations along a 140-mile section of the river, which means the plant has established itself in 20 new locations along the St. John River.

That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended removing the Furbish’s lousewort from its endangered list earlier this month.

The flower still needs protection as a threatened species because despite ongoing conservation efforts, the areas it grows are still vulnerable to threats from development for housing, agriculture and pollution, according to Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

It’s also vulnerable to climate change. Furbish’s lousewort depends on the periodic scraping of the riverbanks by large chunks of ice that flow down the river during the spring thaws. The ice disturbs the soil needed for favorable growing conditions and prevents seeding of competing plant species. But warming winters and more severe flood events are changing the extent and patterns of the annual ice-outs in the St. John River.

Furbish’s lousewort doesn’t flower until it’s three years old. The plants obtain nutrients through their roots by parasitizing other plants. The flowers have only one pollinator — half-black bumblebees, who only forage around half a mile from their nests.

A proposal to construct two hydroelectric dams on the St. John River could have spelled the demise of Furbish’s lousewort. One dam was planned in the “Dickey” corner of Allagash and the second several miles downriver at the site of the former Lincoln School. The resulting lake would have flooded 88,000 acres including the community of Allagash, forcing the relocation of the entire town.

The debate over the construction of the dams spanned three decades during which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent 15 years and $13.2 million on an environmental study that ultimately favored the construction.

In the end, it was the Furbish’s lousewort’s tiny range in the path of the dams that stalled the project long enough that federal politicians lost their appetite for funding the $900 million cost of the project. In 1981 a federal bill officially defunded Dickey-Lincoln.

Furbish’s lousewort remains on the Maine Natural Areas Programs endangered plant list and is protected by the New Brunswick Endangered Species Act.

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.