This is an odd story. A certain endangered orchid happens to grow in only one spot in vast Canada.

That spot happens to be in a little area outside the community of Vita, Manitoba – where a new Amish settlement came to be last year.

One of the settlement’s farmers is now in hot water for disobeying an order not to cultivate land where the rare flower, known as the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid, grows.

The Western Prairie Fringed Orchid. Photo: Nature Conservancy of Canada

From Winnipeg’s CTV News:

In an email to CTV News, a provincial spokesperson said it made a number of efforts to engage landowners about the orchid, providing maps and flagging where it grows.

“However, despite being advised about the presence of the orchids last year and reminded that the land could not be tilled, one landowner proceeded with cultivation. As such, they were charged under the Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act,” said the spokesperson.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever and the legislation is written to prevent that destruction.”

It’s unclear how much of the man’s property is affected – whether the full 160 acres, or if it’s a much smaller area.

The Amishman’s lawyer is arguing that the whole farm is affected, and wants an exemption:

In a letter to Sustainable Development obtained by CTV News, the farmer’s lawyer requests either an exemption to the act or that a prevention order be set aside.

The letter said the order is indefinite in duration and seemingly encompasses the farmer’s entire 160 acres of land.

“This is not a large corporate farm. As is typical in the Amish community farming is done to meet the most basic needs of the family,” the letter said.

On the other hand, government representation says otherwise:

The provincial spokesperson said less than 10 acres on the property in question is affected.

“They have been advised they can cultivate other areas of their property not containing orchids. Some farming practices like haying or grazing areas with orchids can be benign or beneficial and are allowed. The land owners have been advised that grazing would be allowed on the areas containing orchids,” said an emailed statement.

It may be that the random nature of the plants’ locations on the farm creates constant headaches for the farmer.

As Stuartburn Municipality head Lucie Maynard describes it:

“It sounds like the orchid doesn’t grow in a nice square spot. It’s random. Here, there, everywhere. So if he’s always having to go around this and especially with horses and a plow, it’s easier to steer something with wheels or a track, to coordinate horses, that’s got to be more difficult.”

And what if the orchid begins growing in other places on his farm?

Endangered species laws vs. property rights

Laws and regulations protecting endangered plants and animals are ostensibly intended to save species from extinction. But they also mean landowners can lose control over their property.

In the US, there are currently over 1,200 species on the endangered list. The restrictions which can result from efforts to save them can interfere to varying degrees with how land is used.

For example, efforts to save a species such as the lesser prairie chicken has affected how the Great Plains area energy industry operates and installs its infrastructure.

On a more individual level, ranchers have balked at participating in conservation efforts to save the chicken, fearing that permanent agreements will prevent them from adapting their land in response to changes in future.

You can see how this would be more of an issue with those who “work the land”, such as farmers and ranchers.

A surprise for everyone?

Amish moved to the area last year, and have been largely welcomed by locals.

But were they aware the land they were purchasing might be affected by protection of the orchid under the Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act?

Apparently even the municipality itself was unaware of the orchid, according to Maynard:

She said the rural municipality had no idea the endangered orchid was on the land.

“They were moving a fairly large family over, about 40 family members, not all of them are here yet, but they are still purchasing some private properties and relocating here,” said Maynard in an interview with CTV News on Monday.

“So they came here to see in the municipality if had some land for sale and we did have some, and we thought it would be great to welcome new people to the area and expand our population.”

It would certainly be depressing to find that land you purchased after moving over a thousand miles is unusable.

Amish people tend not to romanticize nature. The degree to which their practices are environmentally-friendly varies, as David McConnell and Lyn Loveless detail in their book Nature and the Environment in Amish Life.

I can understand how a seemingly ordinary flower might seem like a silly impediment for a man simply wanting to work his land and support his family, as he and his people have done for generations.

Nevertheless, it appears he was warned about the orchid, but chose to proceed anyway.

The Amishman could face a fine or imprisonment as a result.

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