Matsutake: "Endangered" Species Or Political Football
By Steven Pencall
Controversy concerning the commercial harvest of matsutake and other wild mushrooms has generally centered on real or alleged conflicts between harvesters, or whether landowners are adequately compensated for the value of mushrooms harvested from their land. Recently, the issue took a strange new twist with the publication of a notice in the Federal Register by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on June 12 that "We are soliciting additional information on the following species native to the United States and Canada that are used in the herbal medicinal market. In particular, we solicit information on the biological and trade status of these taxa, and whether or not they meet the CITES criteria for listing in Appendix II." Among several species listed was Tricholoma magnivelare, the American matsutake mushroom.
The notice is at:
then scroll down to "Fish and Wildlife Service: NOTICES"
Contacts with a number of mycologists, both amateur and professional, have failed to turn up a single person who believes that T. magnivelare is actually or potentially "endangered". Several openly scoffed at the notion. Likewise, a review of the mycological literature failed to turn up any articles documenting either a long-term decline in matsutake populations or any environmental factors that currently pose a credible threat to the species. Indeed, the proponents of listing have themselves failed to cite any data showing a decline in T. magnivelare populations. An investigation of this proposal took me into the nuances of international endangered species agreements and revealed the collusion of two government agencies in advancing a scientifically unsound proposal for their mutual benefit.
US Endangered Species List Is Ignored
Whatís going on here? An examination of the documents filed in support of the T. magnivelare listing offers some important clues. First of all, there are two parallel "endangered species lists". The US government, through the Fish and Wildlife Service, oversees a list of species occurring within the US and its territories that are considered "endangered" or "threatened". CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a branch of the United Nations Environment Program, administers a list of endangered or threatened species that are likely to enter into international trade. Many species are found on both lists. Why is matsutake being considered for the CITES list but not the US list?
As many Mushroom the Journal readers are aware, there is a substantial international trade in matsutake, with the bulk of the harvest going to Japan and lesser amounts to other Asian nations. As all of these nations are CITES signatories they would be obliged to regulate their imports of T. magnivelare pursuant to the provisions of CITES in the event it were added to Appendix II of CITES. Likewise, the US and Canada would be obliged to regulate their exports to prevent overharvesting of T. magnivelare. While the picture of a carefully regulated international trade in matsutake may seem almost idyllic, in practice the FWS has long assumed a very aggressive stance toward trade in any CITES listed species, so that US trade in the overwhelming majority of species is virtually non-existent.
If T. magnivelare is so endangered that international trade in it must be curtailed, why then has there been no corresponding effort to have it placed on the US list of endangered and threatened species? Under American law, each species added to the US list must have a "species recovery plan" filed within a specified time after the species is listed. The species recovery plan specifies what measures must be undertaken to prevent a further decline in numbers from occurring and to rebuild species numbers to a point where the species may no longer be considered endangered or threatened. Species recovery plans often entail restrictions on land uses and other activities, leading to litigation and frequently, intense political pressure. Because of this, scientific data incorporated into the species recovery plan and the initial listing of the species is often intensely scrutinized and debated.
CITES Takes Charge
As an international body based in Switzerland, CITES is immune from US domestic political pressure and litigation. The data submitted on behalf of listing a species is examined by an international panel of scientists, many of whom have little or no knowledge of a species that may not even occur on their continent. This is by way of saying that the standards for getting a species listed in CITES are substantially lower than for the comparable US list, and this makes it an attractive alternative for an agency that knows it has a weak case for listing.
And the case for listing T. magnivelare IS incredibly weak. The proposal to list matsutake as published by CITES contains exactly TWO literature references supporting the application, one of which is an article from the Portland Oregonian newspaper (No, I'm not making this up!). The other is a "survey" article that contains no field data. There are also two web page citations; one of them is no longer available. The applicants cited NO field studies and no research documenting a real or potential threat to T. magnivelare. You can see for yourself just how flimsy the case for this listing really is at:
see pages 2-3 (You need Acrobat Reader for this.)
In June I wrote to Ger van Vliet, Senior Scientific Officer for Flora of CITES, pointing out that the scientific data submitted in support of the T. magnivelare petition was inadequate and that CITES should insist that proposals to list species be based on reliable data. In his reply Dr. van Vliet stated that the responsibility for providing such information rests with the government entity (FWS) submitting the petition. After review by the appropriate CITES committee the body at large votes on the proposed listing on the basis of the information submitted by the petitioner.
In other words, the integrity of the process depends on the integrity of the petitioner, in this case the US government as represented by the FWS. CITES is essentially a "gentlemenís club" in which the accuracy of data submitted is assumed to have been reviewed before submission to the international body. An unscrupulous petitioner can easily "game the system" with erroneous or irrelevant data knowing full well that few of the reviewing scientists have the technical background to challenge it. This is especially true with fungi as the CITES committees that oversee fungi are dominated by botanists with vascular plant backgrounds.
Park Service Backs Listing Proposal
At this point you are probably wondering who is responsible for this proposal. The general consensus is that the proposal is being put forward at the behest of the National Park Service (NPS), which like FWS is a branch of the Department of Interior. NPS has experienced problems with poaching of matsutake in a few NPS units, notably Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. As banning international trade in T. magnivelare would--in theory at least--drastically reduce demand, the poaching might be expected to diminish. The CITES document also hints at this as the poaching problem at Crater Lake is prominently mentioned. Apparently, NPS petitioned its sister agency in an effort to deal with this problem in a "creative" new way. (N.B. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FWS in June in an effort to determine exactly who filed the petition to list T. magnivelare but the FWS has stalled in responding to my request. SP)
Drawbacks Of Listing
Some amateur mushroom collectors may be inclined to support this proposal despite its obvious scientific and procedural shortcomings in the hope that it might curb what they believe to be an unacceptable level of commercial harvesting. However, it is very unlikely that amateurs and mycological societies would be spared the repercussions of a T. magnivelare listing. Most federal and state agencies have adopted a "zero tolerance" attitude toward collection, possession, or sale of ANY endangered species. Also, given the difficulty of determining whether mushrooms are being gathered for personal or commercial use, a blanket prohibition on all matsutake collecting would be likely.
My objections to the proposed listing are summarized as follows:
1. The proponents have failed to cite ANY compelling scientific evidence that T. magnivelare merits listing under CITES. The failure to cite any field studies is especially troubling. Newspaper articles don't cut it in real science.
2. This is a disproportionate global response to a local problem with poaching in some National Park Service units. It is like trying to stop drivers from running red lights by banning automobiles.
3. The case for listing T. magnivelare is so transparently flimsy, even fraudulent, that it de-legitimizes the endangered species listing process, eroding public confidence in and support for the listing of other truly endangered species. It leaves the FWS vulnerable to charges that endangered species listings are based on biased, politically motivated "junk science".
4. A government agency, the National Park Service, has essentially been granted a waiver from the usual requirement to furnish legitimate scientific evidence to support a petition for listing. You or I as individuals could of course petition to have T. magnivelare (or any other organism) listed under CITES. However, it is a virtual certainty that the petition would be summarily rejected if we presented "evidence" of the kind the NPS has cited. If a government agency is permitted to ignore the rules simply because IT IS a government agency the potential for harm to society is simply beyond calculation. If this does not seem objectionable to you, imagine for a moment that the FBI, the CIA and the IRS were similarly freed from any requirement to obey the same laws as the general public. Pretty scary, eh?
The final lesson to be drawn from this experience: if matsutake can be listed with no evidence of a threat to the species, what other mushrooms might follow if it were to become expedient for some public agency to do so? Are we ready for chanterelles, morels or porcini to become "endangered", with similar prohibitions on their collection or sale?
The comment period on the proposal to consider listing T. magnivelare in Appendix II of CITES ended on August 13. The FWS expects to announce tentative proposals for species to be submitted to CITES by December 2001. A public meeting, probably in the Washington, DC area, will be held in January 2002 and consultation with other CITES signatories in the range of T. magnivelare (Canada) will be held in March 2002. We should hope that this proposal will quietly die, never to be heard from again. However, I will monitor developments in case the proposal advances through the bureaucratic pipeline.
For the insights of two mycologists familiar with T. magnivelare on the merits of this listing visit this web address:
Update on the "Endangered Matsutake" Proposal as of November 21
Very little new information has come to light in the last three months regarding the US Fish and Wildlife Service's request for information regarding a proposed listing of the American Matsutake mushroom (Tricholoma magnivelare) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
In mid-August, in response to a third Freedom of Information Act inquiry requesting information as to what individuals or groups might have petitioned the FWS to list T. magnivelare under CITES I received a call from Mary Maruca of the FWS's Division of Scientific Authority. Ms. Maruca denied that the listing proposal was initiated at the behest of the National Park Service (NPS) but was instead initiated by the FWS itself. She did admit that comments received from the NPS were a major factor in prompting the review that culminated in the preliminary listing proposal. Some readers may be aware that the NPS has experienced poaching of matsutake in some Pacific Northwest NPS units, Crater Lake National Park in particular.
Ms. Maruca did not disclose what statutory authority permits FWS to initiate the listing of a species as "endangered" on its own. The typical procedure is for an individual or entity outside the agency to file a petition for listing that is subsequently reviewed for scientific merit by the FWS.
Also in August I filed an additional Freedom of Information Act request with FWS to be furnished copies of the comments they received on the T. magnivelare listing proposal. As of November 21 this request has not been fulfilled. Since I have yet to find anyone who believes that the proposal is necessary or even scientifically sound, the FWS may be reluctant to reveal how poorly the proposal was received.
I have also asked Patricia Ford of the FWS to explain why matsutake has not been placed on the federal endangered species list. I asked if it was because, as is widely believed, that the process for listing a species under CITES is less scientifically rigorous than the corresponding federal process. I have received no response from Ms. Ford.
In August several postings to the Internet newsgroup alt.nature.mushrooms complained that comments submitted electronically to the email address <firstname.lastname@example.org> listed in the FWS's June 12 Federal Register notice that announced the proposed listing were returned as undeliverable, as were comments submitted to the email address <Susan_Lieberman@fws.gov> of the FWS official, Susan Lieberman, responsible for publishing the notice. Some posters to the newsgroup suggested a dark conspiracy to suppress comments on the listing proposal, but evidence for this is lacking. The FWS has not, however, furnished an explanation for the failure of their email system to receive comments on this proposal during the critical 60 day comment period, nor have they extended the comment period beyond August 13 to accommodate those who had been denied an opportunity to comment electronically. Postings to alt.nature.mushrooms are archived at:
Confronted with a proposal which is demonstrably lacking in scientific merit and which has been very poorly received by both professional and amateur mycologists, the response of the Fish and Wildlife Service to my earnest attempts to uncover information regarding its proposed listing of T. magnivelare has been disheartening. It would be refreshing if the FWS would just admit that their campaign to list matsutake as "endangered" has been a mistake, but sadly they have resorted to the time-dishonored tactics of bureaucracies the world over: the tactics of delay, dissembling and dissimulation. I canít say that I am surprised, but I am disappointed.
Acknowledgements: e-mail exchanges with David Arora, Andy Moore, David Pilz, Scott Redhead, Dan Wheeler, and Nathan Wilson were helpful. However, all conclusions in this article are mine alone.
Steven Pencall forays from Riverside, California and has collected wild mushrooms for over 20 years. He may be contacted at email@example.com