Regulate rare plant sales

Author: John Monczunski

Thanks to Internet sales and quick FedEx-style shipping, endangered plants these days are growing in more places they shouldn’t. And that is a big, expensive problem that needs policing, ND ecologists Patrick Shirey and Gary Lamberti write in a recent issue of the journal Nature.

The biologists report that rare plants which have been transplanted outside their native ranges cost the United States an estimated $30 billion annually in economic damage. The alien vegetation harms crops, pastures and ecosystems by crowding out native plants and introducing plant pathogens.

Shirey and Lamberti note, for example, that the Australian paperbark tree, a weed which causes millions of dollars of damage in the United States, is an endangered species in its native Australia, where it is losing its costal habitat to economic development.

Conducting an informal Internet survey, the Notre Dame ecologists found that nearly 10 percent of the 753 plants identified in the U.S. Endangered Species Act could be bought online. Further, they found that about half of these plants could be purchased by buyers outside the plants’ natural range. And that is a worry.

“Most online shoppers seem to be amateur horticulturists seeking flowers for their gardens,” they write. “But anecdotal evidence from online forums suggests that the purchasers of rare and endangered plants increasingly include those trying to protect them.”

The ND researchers note that regulations governing re-colonization efforts of endangered animals are much stricter than those governing vegetation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for instance, allows endangered animals to be moved from their natural range only if the native habitat has been irreversibly damaged. No such laws govern the movement of endangered plants.

As the Notre Dame ecologists see it, the problem is twofold: existing laws are not enforced and sellers exploit loopholes in those laws. They argue, therefore, that the current patchwork of state laws protecting endangered species should be replaced with a rigorous, enforceable federal code.

Shirey and Lamberti recommend that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service be given authority to monitor the online sale of endangered plants. Also, they argue that the agency should have the power to restrict consumers from buying rare plant hybrids and that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora should be enforced.

John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at