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Joshua Royte is senior conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Maine.
Back in 1976, the Dickey-Lincoln School Lakes project was a hot topic in Maine. If built, it would have destroyed 88,000 acres of Maine forest around the St. John-Wolastoq River (wolastoq means “beautiful river” to the Maliseet people whose ancestral lands encompass this region). Then, a University of Maine professor discovered a plant in the affected area that had long been believed extinct – Furbish’s lousewort.
This unique plant was named after Kate Furbish, the Brunswick resident and legendary botanist who, in 1880, first documented it in the annals of western science. As a report by the Exeter Historical Society explains, “By the mid-1940s, the plant was believed to be extinct. Its rediscovery classified it as a Lazarus taxon, a phrase borrowed from paleontology for a species thought to be extinct that reappears.” In 1978, it was listed as a federal endangered species.
Furbish’s lousewort only grows on the gravelly shores of the St. John-Wolastoq River — it is found nowhere else on Earth. It thrives in the habitat created by giant blocks of ice that scour the river’s banks each spring. Because of its endangered status, its rediscovery helped a larger citizen effort to stop the Dickey-Lincoln School Dam. Twenty-two years later, The Nature Conservancy in Maine purchased 185,000 acres along the river from International Paper. With donor support, we have continued to conserve much of the crucially important habitat for Furbish’s lousewort and a variety of other globally rare plants.
Recently, it was reported that Furbish’s lousewort was reclassified from federally “endangered” to “threatened,” signaling a reduction in threat level and a change in federal legal protection for the species. At first blush, this seems like good news – after all, that’s the direction we want listed endangered species to move! Unfortunately, as is so often the case in science and in life, the story is not nearly so simple.
Data shows that Furbish’s lousewort has not experienced the recovery and stabilization of its populations that would support the reclassification of this rare plant. Between 1980 and 2021, Maine state botanists’ annual “flowering stem count” of Furbish’s lousewort shows a steady decline, from just under 5,000 to just under 3,000. With warming annual temperatures threatening the ice that creates the habitat for Furbish’s lousewort to thrive, its long-term survival remains highly uncertain.
Even as it reclassified the plant, the federal government noted that it is “likely to become in danger of extinction across its entire range within the foreseeable future.” It remains “endangered” on the Maine Natural Areas Program’s endangered plant list and is protected in Canada by the New Brunswick Endangered Species Act. The Nature Conservancy and other major landowners in the north woods continue to steward the banks of the mighty St. John-Wolastoq River, and despite this change we will do all we can to protect the future of Furbish’s lousewort.
It can be easy to dismiss the significance of a small plant that only grows in a remote corner of the globe. In fact, biodiversity provides much-needed strength and resilience on a rapidly changing planet. The spectacular variety of genetic information and chemical compounds across different species connect us in ways we cannot fully comprehend, but would be wise to respect.
At a hearing on the Dickey-Lincoln School Dam in the late 1970s, a congressman asked a colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers, “What is the function of the lousewort? Does anybody need it?” “Sir,” the colonel replied, “I can only suppose that it is part of the grand scheme of things.”