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Elusive Flora – Bonita Springs Florida Weekly

Professional photographer RJ Wiley photographed the blooming ghost orchid at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. RJ WILEY / COURTESY PHOTO

Professional photographer RJ Wiley photographed the blooming ghost orchid at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. RJ WILEY / COURTESY PHOTO

There is more than one reason to celebrate the blooming of the world's largest known ghost orchid this year.

Environmental groups also welcome the resolution of a legal dispute that will force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to make a final decision on whether or not to protect the rare orchid under the Endangered Species Act.

The first buds of the plant, nicknamed the “super ghost,” opened on June 22 at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples. The ghost orchid is iconic in Florida and loved by many who appreciate its ethereal quality, rarity and beauty. The plant at the sanctuary is unique not only because of its size and the number of flowers it can bear, but also because of its blooming season – from about June to August – and the fact that you can actually see it. Normally, the orchid can only be found deep in the Florida wilderness. The sanctuary orchid is known worldwide and often draws international visitors to marvel at it.

However, according to biologists and conservationists, ghost orchids are also in danger of extinction. The orchid population has declined by more than 90 percent worldwide and by as much as 50 percent in Florida. There are only an estimated 1,500 ghost orchids left in Florida, and fewer than half of those are proven to be mature enough to reproduce.

RJ Wiley photographs hawk nests at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SYDNEY WALSH, AUDUBON / COURTESYRJ Wiley photographs hawk nests at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SYDNEY WALSH, AUDUBON / COURTESY

RJ Wiley photographs hawk nests at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SYDNEY WALSH, AUDUBON / COURTESY

Environmental groups, including the Institute for Regional Conservation, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association, filed a petition in January 2022 calling for the rare plant to be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The FWS found their petition to be merited and, under the law, should have made a decision by January 2023. But under pressure from the plaintiffs, the service failed to do so, saying that no decision could be made before 2026.

The plaintiffs said the decision could not wait that long, so they filed suit on September 13, 2023. The subsequent agreement in the lawsuit calls for the FWS to decide by June 1, 2025, two and a half years later than required by law under the Endangered Species Act.

With this camera, telephoto lens, tripod and flash, Wiley is able to capture close-up images of ghost orchids and other plants and animals at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. RENEE WILSON / AUDUBON FLORIDAWith this camera, telephoto lens, tripod and flash, Wiley is able to capture close-up images of ghost orchids and other plants and animals at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. RENEE WILSON / AUDUBON FLORIDA

With this camera, telephoto lens, tripod and flash, Wiley is able to capture close-up images of ghost orchids and other plants and animals at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. RENEE WILSON / AUDUBON FLORIDA

Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said it was good to have a firm date for the decision rather than leaving the ghost orchid's fate in limbo while the delay continues.

“The agency's process for listing species is kind of broken,” she said, because they can't meet the law's deadlines. It turns out that deadlines have been missed for many species seeking protection under the Endangered Species Act, largely due to a lack of resources and staff to process them.

“We need a process that can act with the urgency required as we try to prevent extinction,” Bennett said.

The agreement between the parties, confirmed by the court, reads:

“By June 1, 2025, the Service shall submit to the Office of the Federal Register, within 12 months, an opinion on whether the designation of the ghost orchid as a threatened or endangered species (a) is not warranted; (b) is warranted; or (c) is warranted but precluded by other pending proposals.”

But the bureaucracy doesn't end there. Bennett said once the decision to grant protection is made, the service will publish a proposed rule, which will begin a one-year period for public comment.

Although the length of the process can be “heartbreaking” for an endangered species, the fact that the decision is moving forward is positive, Bennett said. “Without a decision, you can't move forward.”

The ghost orchid's current range in Florida includes Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and other conservation and tribal lands in Collier, Hendry, and possibly Lee counties. It also occurs in Cuba.

Almost all remaining habitats of the ghost orchid are threatened by habitat destruction due to drainage of wetlands, development and overuse, changes in hydrology (including water quantity and seasonality), climate change and poaching.

The orchid in the sanctuary is located about 21 meters above the ground on a bald cypress tree, about 30 meters from the beach path. To see the flowers, orchid lovers should bring a spotting scope or binoculars and a recommended camera lens length of 600 mm to take a good photo.

The sanctuary will also set up a telescope on the wooden walkway so that visitors can take turns viewing the orchid.

“We are so fortunate to be able to offer our visitors a glimpse of this amazing plant on the occasion of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary's 70th anniversary,” said Keith Laakkonen, director of the sanctuary, in a written statement. “This rare plant depends on the unique microclimate found only in swamps like the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which is home to the largest stand of native cypress forest left on Earth.”

A free ghost orchid photography program will also be offered on August 4 on a first-come, first-served basis. RJ Wiley, a resident photographer who has photographed the orchid for over a decade, will host the program at the Sanctuary's Blair Visitor Center. The program includes discounted admission to the “New Moon on the Boardwalk” event, which begins at 6:30 p.m. Online tickets for the event are recommended. For event details and to register, visit corkscrew.audubon.org. ¦

Anna Harden

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