A tiny flower reveals weakness in wildlife protection legislation

Apparently Canada’s most rare flower isn’t extraordinary enough for government protection. Not yet, at least.

Apparently Canada’s most rare flower isn’t extraordinary enough for government protection.

Not yet, at least.

The plant isn’t protected and local residents are concerned it could be significantly harmed because a mining company has staked the area.

Small numbers of Draba yukonensis — a member of the Whitlow grass mustard family — grow in the Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary.

Researchers found 18 specimens of the small plant, that grows only in the Yukon, when surveying the area in 2005.

Government botanists have found 18,000 examples this year, still enough to qualify it for a species-at-risk.

The plant grows in the Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary, not the national park.

No hunting is allowed in the sanctuary, but industrial activity like placer mining has been allowed for years.

Draba yukonensis isn’t protected by any territorial or federal legislation.

Territorial researchers are attempting to place the plant on Ottawa’s species-at-risk list and the Yukon government is developing its own Species At Risk Act, currently in public consultations.

Under that proposed legislation, the plant could be protected.

“If we had the legislation in place, we’d have the plant listed,” said Bruce McLean, habitat protection manager.

This all puts the rare plant in a sort of limbo: even if Ottawa declares it a species at risk, it doesn’t grow on federal land and the territory’s Wildlife Act doesn’t count it as wildlife.

Further complicating matters is the fact that an exploration company, South African-based Umbono, has staked the meadow where the plant grows.

“Most of our ability (to protect) is if it’s wildlife — it’s a grey area with plants,” said McLean.

Umbono is aware of the plant and as long as the company keeps the government informed of its activity in the area, the plant will be OK, he added.

“If the area of interest is disturbed, then we’ll have a problem,” said Yukon NatureServe botanist Jennifer Lime.

Government researchers are in the early stages of a long process to get the plant placed on the federal species-at-risk list, she said.

In the meantime, they’ve been surveying, mapping and counting.

Finding the plant can be difficult unless you hit the right time, said Lime.

“Once the white petals fall off, it’s difficult to find in open grass,” she said. “It’s so tiny and non-descript.”

The plant grows to a height of eight to 10 centimetres. A rosette of leaves grows at its base.

Researchers first collected the plant in 1944 and again in 1957.

Then, after decades of no new collections, and four years of failed searches that began in 2000, it was believed the plant had been lost forever.

Amateur botanist Phil Caswell and Parks Canada staff found just 18 examples of the species in 2005.

About a week after the rediscovery, only 13 plants could be found.

A count in the following year yielded higher numbers and in 2007 numbers were low again.

This year, government botanists counted about 18,000 examples of the plant.

The up and down numbers have researches guessing at the plant’s life cycle.

“If it’s a bi-annual, Draba yukonensis would be the only one,” said Bruce Bennett, wildlife viewing biologist with NatureServe in the Environment department.

“It’s not something with a few different hairs; it’s a completely unique plant.”

The Yukon is home to about 30 Draba species and Alaska has three more.

But the Kluane region is the only known area where Draba yukonensis grows.

The plant lives in two meadows in the six-kilometre buffer between the national park boundary and the Alaska Highway.

“(The first meadow) is smaller than a Wal-Mart,” said Bennett.

Researchers discovered a second meadow just last week.

“The plant needs to be protected in a way that secures its survival,” said local resident Dieter Gade.

He laments the lack of protection from free-staking and other development such as logging in the sanctuary.

Wildlife can be overlooked when the valley is opened to unsupervised development, said Gade.

Earlier this spring, while hiking the Alsek Trail west of Haines Junction, Gade noticed that a group of trees had been chopped down and turned into claim stakes.

A quick investigation revealed the Kluane National Park and Reserve is covered with claims, said Gade.

Exploration companies are searching for nickel and platinum deposits in the area.

“The users of this valley, we didn’t know it was staked and we’re quite upset,” he said.

More offensive to Gade is that the rare Draba yukonensis is found within staked areas.

“This plant is only growing in this valley in small numbers,” said Gade.

“This little plant has fallen through the cracks of bureaucracy.”

Interim protection is needed of the area in which the rare plant is located, said Gade.

Umbono executives held a meeting with Gade and a few other concerned citizens regarding the plant.

“My sense is the company wants to do the right thing,” said Gade.

“It’s unfair for the government to let a company get into a conflicted situation like this.”

Umbono is sympathetic to the cause and didn’t realize the significance of the valley to rare plant life, said Gade.