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Rare Plant to Finally Get Protection


OXNARD — For 22 years, the Ventura marsh milk-vetch waited to be put on the endangered species list while the world assumed it didn't exist anymore. Now, about four years after the discovery of the plant on an acre of old oil dump land, the thick-rooted, reddish-stemmed member of the pea family is close to getting its place in the sun.

Federal regulators are expected next month to place the obscure plant on the endangered species list, the latest milestone for a plant that also sparked a legal war over a 400-unit housing development on some of Oxnard's last wetlands.

Now the delay in listing the plant is being used as ammunition by critics of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who say the agency drags out endangered species reviews on obscure plants and creatures until it is forced to act by lawsuits.

"This is one of creation's species that took 3 1/2 billion years to evolve," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a suit in January to force the agency to list the species. "When God told Noah to put the species on the ark, he didn't say just put the ones you like, or just the furry ones."

The milk-vetch was discovered in Bolsa Chica Marsh in Orange County in 1882, and was later known to grow throughout wetlands in Southern California. By 1967, however, only a single individual plant was thought to exist, in Oxnard.

In 1975, the Smithsonian Institution petitioned for protection for the plant. And that, until its rediscovery in 1997, is pretty much where the story seemed to end.

"At the time, they said they believed it was extinct, so we kept it as a candidate species in the event it was discovered," said Lois Grunwald, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman. "There were those who looked for it, and believed it to be extinct, so we decided we wouldn't pursue it."

She said agency biologists spend much of their time responding to lawsuits and therefore haven't had a chance to independently focus on species that should be listed.

But, in 1997, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist discovered 374 plants in an acre targeted for a clean-up of waste oil and at a nearby site that an Orange County developer hopes to transform into luxury homes.

After lawsuits by the Ventura County chapter of the California Native Plant Society and the Environmental Defense Center, developer Ron Smith agreed to provide a 10-acre reserve around the plants and to establish off-site populations of the plant. For now, as the owner of the land on which the plant sits, Smith is the protector of the last of the milk-vetch. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Suckling said he believes that if the milk-vetch had been protected earlier, it would have encouraged the rebirth of nearby wetlands. "How much more coastal wetland existed in 1977 than today?" he said. "If this had been listed, the Feds would have immediately started protecting it, and we would have had 10 times as much wetland habitat."

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