SAN FRANCISCO – To an average person, it may just be a drab clump of evergreen leaves indistinguishable from the other plants in the Presidio woods. But the rediscovered San Francisco shrub now has the protection of the federal government.
Officials added the Franciscan manzanita's new status to the federal Endangered Species list Wednesday, meaning anyone who tampers with the plant faces potential criminal charges and fines.
A single Franciscan manzanita shrub was spotted near a construction site by a botanist driving over the Golden Gate Bridge in 2009. It was previously thought to have been wiped out when one of its last natural habitats was bulldozed in 1947.
Officials and environmentalists called the discovery "miraculous."
"It was like all the lions in the wild were gone and we thought that there were none left...and suddenly someone finds a wild pair," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Sarah Swenty said.
After the shrub was replanted in a safer spot in the Presidio Trust, environmental groups sued the federal government to provide additional protections, including endangered species status.
Officials have proposed about 300 acres around the city and the Presidio Trust, mostly on government park land, where the ground-hugging shrub can grow again. Swenty said that people have already started growing the plant again in the Presidio.
Environmental groups say the native shrub is special because it has evolved to survive tough Bay Area conditions, including heavy fog that blocks sunlight and low nutrient, high metal soil. But groups say the plant couldn't evolve to fight the bulldozers and development that brought it to the brink of extinction.
"It's an essential component of a very rare ecosystem that one flourished in San Francisco," said Brent Plater, executive director of the Wild Equity Institute.
The plant can also be found in botanic gardens, and hybrid descendants have been sold.