RENO, NEV. – A botanist hired by a company planning to mine one of the most promising deposits of lithium in the world believes a rare desert wildflower at the Nevada site should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, a move that could jeopardize the project, documents show.
The unusually candid disclosure is included in more than 500 pages of e-mails obtained by conservationists and reviewed by the Associated Press regarding Ioneer Ltd.'s plans to dig near the only population of Tiehm's buckwheat known to exist on earth.
Six months of communications between government scientists, Ioneer's representatives and University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) researchers studying the plant also show the director of UNR's work — financed by Ioneer — repeatedly pushed back against company pressure to prematurely publicize early success of efforts to grow buckwheat seedlings in a campus greenhouse for replanting in the wild.
"I'm not used to such a focus on in-progress research," Beth Leger, a biology professor who also heads UNR's Museum of Natural History, wrote in April. "I feel like maybe one very important thing isn't clear, and that's that these plants could die at any stage of this experiment."
The experiment is part of Ioneer's strategy intended to help avert a federal listing of the plant that could scuttle the mine.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned last year to list the plant under the Endangered Species Act, obtained the documents under a Nevada public records request. It's public information because of UNR's research contract.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced it's received enough scientific information to warrant a full-year review of the buckwheat's status 200 miles southeast of Reno to determine whether it should be federally protected.
Ioneer has spent millions at the site rich with lithium needed to manufacture such things as batteries for Tesla's electric cars.
That includes UNR's $60,000 grant to study transplants and $168,000 for five years of monitoring.
Ioneer President Bernard Rowe told AP in March their plans "will ensure protection and, in fact, the expansion of the buckwheat population."
Leger said in an e-mail that her job is to "present the information to decisionmakers, who can then make fully-informed choices about how to best protect it."