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Celebrating Endangered Species Day

The Tennessee coneflower raises its showy flower head, purple rays surrounding a coppery-orange-colored center into the sun on a long stem.
A perennial in the aster family, it was our state’s first plant to be listed as endangered — faced with extinction in the foreseeable future–under the Endangered Species Act.
Given a home in our town when Jonesborough established the butterfly garden, it has flourished there. Its flowers are soon to open, and will grace the garden throughout much of the summer.
Through protection under the federal law, the Natural Heritage Office reports the Tennessee coneflower to have made strong gains across the state, soon to be taken off the ESA list.
The home range of Alabama snow-wreath extends over six adjacent southeastern states, including Tennessee.
In our state it has lost much ground in recent decades and is known now to exist at only a handful of its earlier, natural-habitat sites.
It has threatened status — likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future. A shrub in the rose family it, too, has recently found a new home here, in Jonesborough’s arboretum.
The U.S. Senate, in 2006, designated the third Friday in May as Endangered Species Day, to be commemorated as a reminder of the nation’s commitment, through this law to save its plants, wildlife, fish and birds at risk of being lost.
Fully a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt had pronounced it “deeply discreditable to the people of any country calling itself civilized to allow wild creatures to cease to exist.”
Endangered Species Day lets us celebrate that bald eagles and manatees, gray wolves and Tennessee coneflower did not meet that fate.
For them, and many other native wildlife species and plants, grim survival prospects some decades ago were changed for the better through the ESA law.
In 1994, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called for public comment on its proposal of endangered-status listing of a freshwater mussel (Appalachian elktoe), which had all but disappeared from the Nolichucky and Little Tennessee rivers, letters from fifth graders in Chuckey expressed sadness at the mussel “dying out,” and hope and insistence “that someone will do something to save the mussel.”
Under ESA listing and protection, the elktoe has been able not merely to live on, but to show encouraging population increases in the upper reaches of the Nolichucky River.
Plants are the food and oxygen factories on whose productivity humans and the entire animal world depend.
In Tennessee a decade ago, 563 grasses and sedges, flowers, shrubs and trees were at risk, their conservation status ranging from “special concern” calling for very careful monitoring, being threatened or endangered, to being “probably (already) extirpated.”
Currently, “only” 541 plants are so designated. That the viability of these plants hasn’t deteriorated but held relatively steady may come as a surprise where green-space obliteration is as rampant as it seems in our state.
This relatively “good news” outcome for Tennessee’s at-risk plants, too, is cause for celebration of “Endangered Species Day.”