This Rare Plant Is Threatening Plans For A Lithium Mine In Nevada


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockJun 9 2021, 12:12 UTC
Tiehm’s buckwheat.

Tiehm’s buckwheat. Image credit: Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity

An unassuming yellow plant threatens to scupper the plans of a gigantic proposed lithium mine in Nevada.

Last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act in response to a petition and litigation from the Center for Biological Diversity.


The Tiehm’s buckwheat is found only in a few acres of public land in Esmeralda County, western Nevada. The species had a tough year in 2020 when 17,000 plants were mysteriously dug up, eradicating up to 40 percent of the population in one fell swoop. Very soon, things are set to get even worse for the species.

Unfortunately, the native home of Tiehm’s buckwheat also sits on top of the Rhyolite Ridge area, which holds the largest known lithium and boron deposit in North America, estimated at 146.5 million metric tonnes. With an increasing demand for lithium to use in electric vehicle batteries, Rhyolite Ridge has become hot property and Australian mining company Ioneer has proposed plans to build a vast lithium mine in the area. 

The Center for Biological Diversity argues that this would be catastrophic for the unique plant. By their estimates, the project would wipe out 60 percent of the plant’s habitat during phase 1 of the mine, and 80 percent to 90 percent in phase 2.


The proposition of making Tiehm’s buckwheat an endangered species won’t stop the mine itself. However, it could make things more difficult for the mine’s environmental impact review, which was scheduled for January 2021 but has been delayed. 

“Tiehm’s buckwheat shouldn’t be wiped off the face of the Earth by an open-pit mine. The Service stepping in to save this plant from extinction is the right call,” Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release.

“The Biden administration is at a crossroads, and the Tiehm’s buckwheat is a symbol of our times,” added Donnelly. 


“Will the clean energy transition choose a new path and support our country’s remarkable biodiversity? Or will it opt for business as usual, with mining and development continuing to fuel the extinction crisis that’s bringing our life-support systems to the brink of collapse?”

Reuters reported last month that the Biden Administration planned to rely on mines in ally countries to obtain lithium and other metals needed for electric car batteries. While many environments will welcome the transition away from gas-guzzling vehicles, the plight of the Tiehm’s buckwheat and the lithium deposits of Nevada shows the move towards green energy is a deeply thorny problem.

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