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Conservationists File Lawsuit to Protect Imperiled Ghost Orchid
Without the federal protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, the ghost orchid could very well become the next victim of our extinction crisis.
The Institute for Regional Conservation, Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for unlawfully delaying critically needed Endangered Species Act protection for the ghost orchid.
The Fish and Wildlife Service missed the mandatory deadline to make a decision on whether to protect the ghost orchid in January. The agency does not plan to make the required protection decision for the rare flower until as late as fall 2026, almost three years after it was legally required to do so.
The ghost orchid is at risk of extinction from multiple threats, including poaching, habitat loss and degradation, and the climate crisis. Slammed by hurricanes Irma and Ian, the orchids face above normal Atlantic hurricane activity this year due to record-warm sea surface temperatures, with a predicted six to 11 hurricanes, between two to five of which could become major hurricanes.
“We regret that we must file this lawsuit, but the world famous and critically imperiled ghost orchid is out of time,” said George Gann, executive director at The Institute for Regional Conservation. “Only the Endangered Species Act can provide both the deterrence against poaching and the resources needed to respond to growing threats from hurricanes, invasive species, and counterproductive management decisions such as increased oil exploration. Preventing extinction, though, is the lowest bar — we must seek recovery of the ghost orchid, so that this Florida icon rebounds to its full glory in the Greater Everglades ecosystem.”
“Delaying protections will make it that much harder to draw ghost orchids back from the brink of extinction,” said attorney Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These spirits of the swamp need all the help they can get in the face of habitat destruction and increasingly intense storms. Desperately needed federal protections will only come after these orchids have been listed under the Endangered Species Act.”
“Time is running out for Florida’s favorite flower,” said Melissa Abdo, Ph.D., Sun Coast Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “As a researcher, I have spent years searching for this elusive species throughout its narrow habitat in Big Cypress National Preserve and the wildlands of Southwest Florida. It is with a heavy heart that I say that without the federal protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, the ghost orchid could very well become the next victim of our extinction crisis.”
“Ghost orchids really need the full force of the law to protect them from poachers as soon as possible,” said Jaclyn Lopez, director of the Jacobs Law Clinic for Democracy and the Environment at Stetson University College of Law. “Each day of delay sets back the recovery of this delicate, alluring epiphyte.”
The orchid is one of the most famous flowers in Florida, but its population has declined by more than 90% globally and by up to 50% in Florida. Only an estimated 1,500 ghost orchid plants remain in Florida, and less than half are known to be mature enough to reproduce.
Threats to the orchid continue to grow. Just last year two people were caught stealing a ghost orchid and other rare plants from Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Meanwhile, in Big Cypress National Preserve, proposals to drill for oil and to expand off-road vehicle access threaten the ghost orchid’s sensitive habitat.
The ghost orchid’s current limited range includes Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and additional conservation and tribal areas in Collier, Hendry and possibly Lee counties. It is also found in Cuba, where it is also critically threatened.
Following a petition filed by The Institute for Regional Conservation, Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the rare native orchid may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency initiated a status review to inform a final decision, which the agency was legally required to make in January but failed to complete.