Poachers seizing rare ‘on the brink’ native plants

The orange, or yellow fringeless orchid is the rare Lowcountry cousin to the white fringeless orchid under consideration for the federal Endangered Species list,

The white fringeless orchid — now being considered for the Endangered Species list — might be gone in South Carolina. Its Lowcountry cousin, the orange fringeless orchid, might not be far behind.

Poaching is making it worse: the rarer the plant the more saleable it is.

Wild plant poaching is on the rise in the Francis Marion National Forest among other coastal habitats, say the people who watch for rare wildflower blooms. So is law enforcement attention, they say, though U.S. Forest Service staffers won’t confirm that.

Orchids, rare bug-eating plants like the Venus fly trap, and even more common wild plants are being dug up at a fast enough rate that naturalists are keeping their locations secret and are reluctant even to talk about poaching, afraid it will spur more.

“Huge, huge holes in three dozen places, maybe 1,000 pounds of soil and the plants it contained, had been removed,” said orchid enthusiast John Brubaker, of Awendaw, about the theft of a patch of the wildflowers he prizes in the Francis Marion. Brubaker has twice recently stopped people he came across from digging up rare plants. “It’s been a major problem in the past few years,” he said.

The spike in poaching has come at least partly because of more widespread media attention on rarities and collecting, he said. “It’s just like rhinoceros horns. I’ve met people from Germany, France, in the best orchid sites in the Francis Marion.”

Jeff Jackson, of the S.C. Native Plant Society has seen holes dug in the best habitats too. One time, he came up behind a truck carrying a fully grown, dug-up native azalea plant out of the forest.

“I grew up in the National Forest and have roamed there for over 40 years. Never was I asked what I was doing until the last few years. I’ve been pulled by DNR twice and questioned by a forester,” he said.

The white fringeless orchid is a high mountain plant that has been poached out of existence in a number of locations and is known to have grown in recent years in only one carefully guarded secret spot in South Carolina. It hasn’t been seen there since the drought years in the early 2000s.

The orange, or yellow fringeless is known to have grown in nine locations in the Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston but it hasn’t been seen in at least five years.

The white orchid is under endangered species status consideration because the Center for Biodiversity has pushed for it. The orange — and at least a half-dozen other Lowcountry native orchids — just as easily could be.

It’s among more than 1,600 species of plants that have been documented in the forest, including 32 species of orchids, 22 species of ferns, and 12 species of carnivorous, or bug-eating plants, according to the Forest Service. As many as a half dozen of the orchids alone are so rare that they are species of concern.

They’re being lost to a combination of environmental and human habitat management factors, because it takes a singular mix of soil nutrients and other habitat conditions to produce them, as well as poaching.

A dug-up plant is likely to die. Spores of the plant, though, can lie dormant for years until the right conditions stir them. That’s why the poached plants are dug up in large clumps of the soil where they are found, and the loss of that soil alarms naturalists even more — there’s no way to keep the plant from disappearing if the soil does.

The loss is crippling not only for the orchids but the health of the ecosystem.

“Orchids are good indicator of what we’re doing to destroy our soils’ capacity to sustain life,” Brubaker said.

The Forest Service doesn’t have a breakout for how many arrests have been made for plant poaching, much less historical numbers for comparison; 375 arrests have been made so far this year in national forests in the state, for a number of violations including hunting, fishing and poaching, said Capt. Stuart Delugach.

The number of Forest Service law enforcement officers in the forest hasn’t changed, said Robin Mackie, vegetation ecologist, but “we do have forest protection officers on the district with more limited authorities, and agreements with Charleston and Berkeley counties to help with law enforcement when needed.” S.C. Department of Natural Resources officers also patrol.

The plants are protected under federal and state law, and violations can bring a maximum fine of $5,000 and six months in jail. Poaching a species on the Endangered Species list can bring up to a $100,000 fine.

Endangered species status couldn’t hurt when it comes to protecting a rare orchid, but probably won’t help keeping it from disappearing, Brubaker said. A smarter move would be the original intent of conservationists who sought the act in the 1970s: to declare “rare and endangered sites,” he said.

“It’s not likely that (white fringeless) orchid will ever be seen again (in South Carolina),” said Jim Fowler, author of “Wild Orchids of South Carolina: A Natural History.” But, “when you find it, you find a good number of them, a hundred or more in bloom at one time. There’s always the idea they’re still there. You always keep your eye out, hoping you find it.”

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