Are those Venus flytraps near Carolina Forest in danger of extinction?

Johnny Vaught dug them up as a child, and fed them flies

The councilman discusses the proposed listing of Venus Flytraps as an endangered species.
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The councilman discusses the proposed listing of Venus Flytraps as an endangered species.

Venus flytraps are readily available for purchase on the internet for about $10 and are easily propagated, but the federal government says its native habitat in the Carolinas may be in peril and require a protective listing under the Endangered Species Act.

There’s only one remaining habitat in the state and that’s in Horry County. Most prominently, in a nature preserve along the northern side of Carolina Forest, just a few miles away from Myrtle Beach.

The bug-eating plants thrive in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says they suspect the population there has declined due to changes in the surrounding habitat, along with residential and commercial development.

That’s also where International Drive is under construction, a road that environmentalists have opposed and tried to block through court challenges.

“Many lesser quality, roadside occurrences of Venus flytraps are threatened by vehicular activities, road maintenance, and road expansions,” said the announcement this week from Fish and Wildlife.

“Another major threat to Venus flytraps is over-collection. Poaching is also a serious threat to the plant, and incidents of theft appear to have increased in recent years,” the announcement said.

Dana Beach with the Coastal Conservation League said they welcome the federal government’s actions, but don’t expect the proposed listing to prompt any further court battles to block the road’s completion, which is scheduled for March.

Critical habitat may be designated in the area if the species is listed, and Beach said he hopes that means the preserve would expand to the south side of International Drive.

“That would be beneficial for ecological reasons, and taking it off the table for development means traffic would not increase by that (section) of International Drive,” Beach said.

“It’s very wet over there and not really great for development, but great for conservation. So we hope over time that would happen, and it would make International Drive more functional to not have a lot of curb cuts and traffic coming in and out if that property were not developed.”

Johnny Vaught, Horry County councilman, grew up playing in the preserve, and feeding flies to the plants.

If the government does list the Venus flytrap as endangered and defines a critical habitat that could well expand outside of the preserve’s boundaries, Vaught doesn’t think it will have an effect on future development.

“Carolina Forest is almost completely developed like it is and everything is already permitted,” Vaught said. “If they do find any flytraps outside of the preserve, it’s likely in the wetlands that can’t be developed, anyway.”

The announcement should serve as a wake-up call to manage the property for the Venus flytrap’s maintenance, and that includes controlled burns, Beach said.

James Fowler, the Region IV heritage trust coordinator in charge of the preserve, said the flytrap is a fire-adapted species.

“Without fire, the flytrap actually disappears from the landscape,” Fowler said.

The flytraps are endemic to the long leaf pine savanna and Carolina bay area because of the peaty and moist soil, Fowler said. They don’t know how many of the flytraps flourish in the area, but are working on a survey technique to determine the population.

Asked if the preserve has any plans for expansion to the other side of International Drive, Fowler said, “I wish we did,” but there are no current plans.

“A larger buffer for the preserve would also help with prescribed burning logistics and smoke management,” Fowler said.

“I see listing of this species only helping us to better manage the species and it’s habitat. This species needs further protection due to fire suppression, loss of habitat, urban development encroachment, poaching (and) illegal plant trade, and the uncertainties of a changing climate,” Fowler said.

David Lucas, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said the Venus flytrap is not designated by the state as threatened or endangered, but that it is illegal to remove a plant from their property, including the Horry County preserve.

In North Carolina, where the listing is also proposed, it’s a felony to dig up the plants.

In 2015, two men were arrested on 149 counts of felony takings of Venus flytraps from the Orton Plantation in Winnabow, North Carolina. Their bond was set at $1 million.

The endangered species listing was first proposed to the Obama administration in 2016 by a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison ecologists and others who petitioned for the plant’s protection.

Don Waller, the petition’s author and a professor of botany, told Science Daily that collectors snatching plants from their habitat was draining the population.

“We have reached a situation where there are more flytraps in captivity than in the wild,” Waller said. “That might be construed as good news, if it assures they will survive in captivity, but it's distressing for ecologists and conservation biologists. A population can only persist and evolve in its native habitat, and we've already seen the disappearance of 90 percent of wild plants.”

The initial status review process by the federal government will take 90 days, followed by a findings period that is expected to go beyond the one-year completion date, said Jennifer M. Koches, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Charleston.

The federal agency recently finalized a seven-year work plan to guide them through a backlog of listing actions, and it’s not yet known where the Venus flytrap will fit into that work plan,” Koches said.

Audrey Hudson: 843-444-1765, @AudreyHudson