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Nevada conservationists work to protect rare wildflower losing habitat to development

A man wearing an Indiana Jones-style hat and sunglasses is bending down to point his index finger at a small cluster of yellow wildflowers. The sky is blue with clouds.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity, finds a small cluster of Carson Valley monkeyflowers outside of Carson City, Nev., on Thursday, May 2, 2024.

This is the time of year when wildflowers are coloring fields and forests across the Mountain West. But one rare flower that grows in a small corner of the region is threatened by development and climate change.

It’s a sun-soaked afternoon in Carson City, Nev., and Patrick Donnelly is walking down a brush-covered slope between a highway and a large shopping center.

Just over a decade ago, these grocery stores, retail shops, and restaurants weren’t here. The area was 86 acres of untouched desertland.

It also served as a habitat for a rare Nevada wildflower: the Carson Valley monkeyflower.

“This was documented monkeyflower habitat 12 years ago,” says Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “And now it’s covered in trash, there's the Trader Joe's and the Dollar Loan Center. This is ultimately what will drive the species extinct; habitat loss is what's going to push it over the edge.”

A close-up image of a cluster of five wildflowers that have yellow blossoms with red dots.
Patrick Donnelly
Center for Biological Diversity
The Carson Valley monkeyflower faces more threats than any rare plant in Nevada, according to state researchers.

Earlier this year, Donnelly and the conservation group petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the Carson Valley monkeyflower to the endangered species list. The tiny flower, ranging from 1 to 3 inches tall, has bright yellow blossoms, freckled with red dots.

“They have this beautiful patterning – these red dots,” Donnelly says. “And those dots are an indicator to bees to come on in.”

But they provide more than nectar to bees, and a pretty sight to Donnelly. They play a critical role in the biodiversity that gives people clean air and water and need federal protections as the Carson City area expands, he says.

“It doesn't mean that we can't have Trader Joe's and we can't have Walmart, it just means there needs to be some limits on our growth,” he adds.

In fact, more than 40% of the Carson Valley monkeyflower’s habitat has already been destroyed, and they grow on only 1,000 acres in northern Nevada and a corner of California, according to a 2018 report by the Nevada Division of Natural Heritage.

Report author Janel Johnson, now a researcher for national nonprofit NatureServe, says threats to monkeyflower’s terrain are mounting.

“Unfortunately, those places that are gentle slopes with sandy soils also happen to be good places to build city parks and housing developments and freeways and all the other things that make a city,” she says.

A desert landscape covered in sagebrush and blankets of tiny yellow wildflowers. In the background is a highway with vehicles on it.
Patrick Donnelly
Center for Biological Diversity
Carson Valley monkeyflowers had a strong bloom last year (seen here), but the rare plant is losing habitat to the development of roads and buildings.

In recent decades, the greater Carson City area has expanded rapidly. New homes, roads and warehouses continue to unfold across this desert like a growing pop-up book.

Johnson says that doesn’t mean imperiled plants like the monkeyflower should be ignored, adding that “it’s kind of arrogant of humans to decide what gets to live and what doesn't, just on a whim of where do we want to build our next warehouse or subdivision.”

That’s a rising conflict in the fast-growing Mountain West: Developers targeting land and people trying to conserve it for plants and animals.

Back in Carson City, Donnelly, sporting an Indiana Jones-like hat and using a rustic walking stick, is now hiking in an area of monkeyflower habitat that isn’t threatened by development – at least not yet.

Last spring, blankets of the yellow wildflower covered these hills.

“We had just thousands and thousands of them everywhere you looked,” Donnelly says.

But that’s not the case this year, which is why he’s searching high and low to find some sprouting from the sandy soil. After a lengthy search for the elusive flower, Donnelly breaks into giddy laughter as he spots tiny yellow blossoms with red dots.

“I can't believe you could wander around Carson City for three hours looking for plants, and this is what you find. That's the Carson Valley monkeyflower,” Donnelly says as he leans in to get a close look at the plant, which is barely an inch tall and slightly wilting. “That is a struggling wildflower right there – it is not living to its full potential.”

On the right side of the image is a tiny yellow wildflower barely an inch tall. On the left is a hand pointing to the plant.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Carson Valley monkeyflowers, like this inch-tall plant, are struggling to sprout and survive amid hotter and drier conditions.

Donnelly says a lot of the blame goes to another increasing threat to the monkeyflower: climate change. Rising temperatures, declining precipitation, and drought make it difficult for them to know if and when to sprout.

“Some of them will adapt every year, no matter how crazy it is,” he says. “Maybe it's one out of millions. But that resiliency is the only chance these plants have at surviving climate change.”

He says that’s why it’s more important than ever to protect the Carson Valley monkeyflower, which is also threatened by wildfires, livestock farming and ranching, and invasive species.

But federal protections won’t happen anytime soon. The average time it takes the U.S. government to list a species after a petition is filed? More than a decade, Donnelly says.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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