Lithium miner rips its own research in ESA fight

By Jael Holzman | 12/17/2021 01:18 PM EST

A mining company seeking to build a massive open-pit lithium mine in western Nevada put up around a quarter of a million dollars, hoping to prove it could safely move a rare wildflower out of the mine’s path. Instead it wound up paying for research that could give the federal government the science it needs to protect the flower, known as Tiehm’s buckwheat, under the Endangered Species Act.

Tiehm’s buckwheat.

The desert wildflower Tiehm's buckwheat grows on 10 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in western Nevada. Sarah Kulpa/Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

A mining company seeking to build a massive open-pit lithium mine in western Nevada put up around a quarter of a million dollars, hoping to prove it could safely move a rare wildflower out of the mine’s path.

Instead it wound up paying for research that could give the federal government the science it needs to protect the flower, known as Tiehm’s buckwheat, under the Endangered Species Act (Greenwire, June 3).

Environmentalists are relishing the irony, while the company is urging the Fish and Wildlife Service not to base its decisions about protections on the research it commissioned.


“That study was an initial investigation of a very poorly studied plant species, effectively providing scoping for future investigations, and not intended to provide definitive answers,” Ioneer Ltd. argued in a Dec. 6 letter criticizing FWS for using “flawed” data in its proposal to list the flower as endangered.

“The study cannot support the heavy weight that FWS has placed upon it.”

Lithium, a key ingredient in batteries, will be instrumental to the future of clean energy. Automakers have said a cheap, plentiful and secure supply of lithium is essential for electric vehicles to be affordable for most Americans. For this reason, some large environmental groups can be open to lithium mining.

But Ioneer’s proposed mine, known as Rhyolite Ridge, has come under fire specifically because of Tiehm’s buckwheat — a yellow wildflower found only on 10 rocky acres at the mine site in western Nevada, and nowhere else on Earth.

The Bureau of Land Management permitting process for Rhyolite Ridge has stood still since the Fish and Wildlife Service declared it would consider protecting the flower. The BLM regional office overseeing the project told the Elko Daily Free Press earlier this week it would hold off on any more permitting decisions until after a final action on the wildflower. The bureau did not respond to a request for confirmation.

Knowing the flower could prove a challenge, Ioneer in 2019 first announced funding — eventually totaling at least $228,000 — for scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, to conduct research on whether the species could be replanted elsewhere and still survive.

But the scientists found that moving the plant from its native soil could prove complicated to engineer. During work on the study, a consultant collaborating with the scientists also privately predicted the government would list the flower under the Endangered Species Act, according to public records obtained from the university by the Center for Biological Diversity and reviewed by E&E News.

When the scientific work was completed, the research wound up being a key piece of evidence cited by the Fish and Wildlife Service in its proposal to list the wildflower as endangered — a finding that could make permitting more challenging.

Ioneer Executive Chair James Calaway told E&E News that funding the study was part of the company’s “early work to develop science to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat and understand it.”

He added, “Even though, yes, we funded academic research, there’s a difference between funding academic research and funding consultants that do the work for you.”

The company has maintained that its plans for the Rhyolite Ridge mine have anticipated an ESA listing and it believes it can protect the plant while moving forward, including creating a buffer zone around the plants. Its letter to Fish and Wildlife was not intended to oppose a listing, Calaway said, but to critique some of the science undergirding what was proposed.

“We are not opposing it being listed as endangered,” Calaway said.

But the Center for Biological Diversity objects to the company’s current plans, asserting they aren’t compatible with preserving the wildflower. The center, which filed the original petition asking FWS to protect the flower and the lawsuit that eventually forced the agency to move on making a listing decision, said the research was properly considered by the Fish and Wildlife Service (Greenwire, April 22).

“It certainly helped our cause, the fact that it was a complete and total failure,” said Patrick Donnelly, the center’s Nevada state director.

There is a lot of money riding on the project and what happens with the flower. Sibanye-Stillwater, a large precious metals company, recently agreed to inject hundreds of millions into Rhyolite Ridge but only if Ioneer gets all its permits for the mine (Greenwire, Sept. 16).

If the company can’t get its permits, the money could vanish. Yet Calaway expressed no bitterness about the path his company took to get here.

“We don’t have regrets about that study,” he said.

‘There isn’t a fix’

Rhyolite Ridge lithium project site
The site of the proposed Rhyolite Ridge lithium and boron mine in Nevada.

| Ioneer Ltd.

Tiehm’s buckwheat got its name from botanist Arnold Tiehm, who discovered the flower in the Silver Peak mountain range in 1983. Human activity over time, including mining, created a unique hydrology in its habitat, producing the rich lithium-boron soil that the buckwheat needs to grow.

The flower has never been found elsewhere. Conservationists say species like this are a reason the Endangered Species Act exists.

“It really is a poster child for the act,” said Naomi Fraga, director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden.

The university research funded by Ioneer was headed by biology professor Beth Leger and graduate student Jamey McClinton, and it sought to understand whether the buckwheat could be removed from its unique soil.

For more than a year, the scientists studied the prevalence of insects and spiders around the buckwheat’s environment, the importance of pollination and soil variation to its survival, and whether replanting was a viable option for the company.

As Leger and others involved in the study worked on their research, some involved privately admitted the flowers could wind up with ESA protections, according to the documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity and reviewed by E&E News.

“Nothing that we are researching is a quick fix, or even a fix. There isn’t a fix for this type of impact,” Kris Kuyper, a biology program manager with permitting consultant EM Strategies, wrote Leger in a Jan. 7 email.

Kuyper told Leger, “I’m sure [the flower] will be listed” under the Endangered Species Act, and “it should be” listed.

“[T]hen it will be a matter of consultation with the USFWS. I look at the research that Ioneer is funding as being useful to inform that consultation. It’s understandable that Ioneer doesn’t have a biologist’s perspective, and part of my job is to try to get them to understand the science and the time required,” Kuyper wrote.

“Right on, all around,” Leger replied.

The study ended prematurely last year after multiple “herbivory events” that affected plant survival — including a mass plant die-off that investigators determined was most likely caused by squirrels (E&E News PM, Dec. 4, 2020).

‘Soil specialist’

The scientists’ work culminated in a report submitted this past January to the company. The document, which was obtained by E&E News, states Tiehm’s buckwheat is a “rare soil specialist,” meaning it needs the unique soil conditions of its native habitat.

The scientists concluded, according to the report, that the species “substantially contributes to and benefits from the high abundance and diversity” of native insects and pollinators.

They also wrote the wildflowers “are not simply highly stress-tolerant, but that they are specifically adapted to their preferred soil types.” This finding was “borne out by the transplant experiment,” the report stated.

In the company’s favor, the scientists wrote “it is possible” to plant seedlings of the buckwheat in a greenhouse, and that growing them in the field “promoted high root allocation that was likely beneficial” for surviving a transplant.

But that finding came with a qualifier. Although “some occupied sites we tested were favorable for some life history stages,” they wrote, “we did not identify unoccupied sites that could support both establishment and growth” of Tiehm’s buckwheat seedlings. More work is needed to determine whether suitable sites can be identified, they said.

Even though the study ended early, the mining company ultimately praised the report as a scientific achievement, focusing on positive news like the possibility of growing seedlings in a greenhouse. A news release in January celebrating the report proclaimed Leger and her team had “greatly advance[d] existing knowledge of Tiehm’s buckwheat and create[d] the foundation for future efforts to ensure long term protection.”

Career staffers at the Fish and Wildlife Service, who were preparing an assessment as part of the federal decisionmaking process around Tiehm’s buckwheat, also found the scientists’ work notable.

Last April, the agency released a species status assessment concluding the “best available research" indicated the flower was a “soil specialist” and “adjacent, unoccupied sites were not suitable for all early life history stages.” The assessment cited the Ioneer-funded study at least 35 times, excluding the bibliography.

In October, Fish and Wildlife again referenced the same study several times as it proposed protecting the flower as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Ioneer told E&E News the company had sent the report to Fish and Wildlife so the agency could see what it said.

But only after the government referenced the study to protect the flower did the company begin criticizing it publicly.

In its recent letter submitted to Fish and Wildlife, the company said the university research was too limited to provide the basis for federal species protections. Poking at the species assessment, Ioneer said FWS “simply adopts” the conclusions of the paper “as true and definitive.”

“However, a closer examination of the available data indicates that the analyses and statements imbedded in [the study] are based upon small sample sizes and plagued by misleading interpretations,” stated the Dec. 6 letter.

Ioneer’s Calaway told E&E News the company aired its concerns about the study it funded to Fish and Wildlife before the agency began incorporating it into its decisions about protecting the flower. The comment letter demonstrated how “there are certain moments you have to put in writing for the record where you have differences.”

“We just think that they grossly overstated what they could say from the data they used,” Calaway said.

In an email to E&E News, Leger stated that the Ioneer-funded paper had been submitted for peer review and that she hadn’t been aware of Ioneer’s letter. She declined to comment on the company’s criticisms.

However, she agrees with the Fish and Wildlife Service that her research represents the “best available science.”

“Unlike the public comments by Ioneer, I’ll note that peer review is conducted by scientists with no incentive to interpret work in one way or another, and we anticipate incorporating those unbiased reviews into our final published product,” Leger wrote.

Asked about Leger’s email, Calaway batted back.

“If she says those things, I’m sure she thinks that,” he said. “Science should be about not making a comment like that but looking at the data.”

Fraga, the botanist from the California Botanic Garden, took notice when Ioneer first disclosed that it was funding research at the University of Nevada, Reno. It was the first study of any kind in over a decade to be conducted on the buckwheat.

She was concerned at the time about the ethics of Ioneer’s financial relationship with the university. In an op-ed published in the Reno Gazette-Journal, she asked, "When will biologists and ecologists say ‘no’ to assisting industry with misguided mitigation projects for rare plants?"

But when it came to the people involved with the study, Fraga said she trusted the team and is now defending Leger’s work.

“Beth Leger is well-known. In my comments about the research, I never disputed the expertise that Dr. Leger and her lab bring to increasing our understanding of Tiehm’s buckwheat,” Fraga said. “She’s well regarded as a scientist in her field.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service last week released a new schedule for a final decision on protecting Tiehm’s buckwheat as endangered. A proposed rulemaking on critical habitat is expected next month, and a final rulemaking on listing is anticipated in late fall 2022.

Calaway said the company is “working very hard” with “the agencies on a plan that is careful.” It has plans to mitigate harm to the flower even if the species receives ESA protections, Calaway said, and hopes Fish and Wildlife will be “careful” with the science it considers.

“This is the science process. What we’ve done is going to aid and assist Fish and Wildlife to make the best decisions for the plant, and that’s all we’re doing here,” he said.