Laura Gadd pauses at the edge of a pristine savanna, delicately lifting her feet to avoid trampling any venus flytraps hidden underfoot.
Buried below wisps of wire grass, a few of the plants advertise their presence with a single white flower — perched atop a long stem like a flag of surrender. Gadd finds a half-dozen this day, enough to warrant a spray of glue and inconspicuous powder used to identify the plants and track down poachers who pluck them.
"Let me mark these — this is a good cluster," she says, crouching in the shadow of a longleaf pine.
One of nature's most recognized wonders, the venus flytrap's ability to snatch living prey makes it a favorite of elementary school science classes everywhere. Yet the flytrap is falsely ferocious: It's hardly the man-eating Audrey Jr. from "The Little Shop of Horrors," but a tiny plant only a few inches tall with leaves no bigger than a thumbprint.
These days, the little plant is more vulnerable than ever. And despite its popularity, the people who could protect it seem focused on other problems.
The flytrap's natural habitat exists only within a hundred miles of the Carolinas' coast, where much larger and more territorial plants have always held forth. Booming growth and development along the coast threatens to overrun the few sensitive and thin populations of venus flytraps that still exist in the wild.
Plants exist in just one county
An Associated Press review of state botany records found that nearly 80 percent of the 117 identified wild populations of flytraps in North Carolina have little chance of surviving, have been wiped out altogether or haven't been seen in years. Most of the viable clusters are in nature preserves, yet experts believe some of those could be thinned by encroaching humans.
"When you go out looking for these populations that have been recorded, you find you're either in a golf course or a subdivision, or a road or a shopping center," said James Luken, a professor at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., who studies wetland ecology. "It's a biological hotspot, but it's a development hotspot. These areas are being transformed as fast as the bulldozers can roll."
In South Carolina, flytraps were once found in as many as four counties. But experts there now believe populations exist only in Horry County, on the North Carolina line, and they're quickly retreating to a single nature preserve.
Flytraps also are being wiped out by logging and efforts to suppress wildfires in their slim stretches between dry Carolina savannas and mucky pocosins, a type of wetland. As forest personnel dig firelines to prevent frequent savanna fires from spreading into the pocosins, where fires can rage for weeks in the sandy, peaty soil, they often trample the fragile flytraps.
Poachers also target the carnivorous plant that's a big seller in nurseries, at roadside stands and on the Internet. Flytraps are especially popular overseas, and they're increasingly used for medicinal purposes, but poaching prosecutions are rare because other plants and animals take a higher priority.
"Plants are a challenge because they don't have big brown eyes and fur," said Tom Chisdock, an Asheville-based special agent with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "So, when you're trying to get people excited about doing enforcement and prosecuting them, sometimes that can be a challenge."
A 'special concern'
North Carolina officially considers the plant a "special concern," but the state laws protecting the flytrap are lax. The North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, part of the state Department of Agriculture, has long desired stronger protections, but admits that with a staff of three it wouldn't be able to enforce stricter rules.
Gadd, a botanist with the program, said the state considered upgrading the flytrap's protection status to "threatened," but decided against it because the designation is largely reserved for plants that have less than 20 populations remaining in the state. The flytrap has more, although only 16 are graded with "excellent" or "good" viability.
"When you look at the grand scope of things, all of those populations are in one small corner in the whole world," Gadd said.
Some of the healthiest flytrap populations include tens of thousands of plants clustered in well-protected spots, including the vast Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg military bases. There, the plants are dependent on programs of prescribed burns that clear out competing vegetation like wildfires would normally do.
Sgt. Charles Smith, of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said repeated flytrap poachers face only misdemeanor charges and are generally fined less than $200. On rare occasions, they'll get a few days in jail. He recalls catching one poacher more than a dozen times digging up "thousands upon thousands" of flytraps on state land to sell for only a dollar or two each.
"What I understand is that him and his crowd are still at it," Smith said.
Smith and his staff of five cover four counties, where they are tasked with enforcing fishing and boating laws while keeping track of more than 250,000 acres of gamelands. "You could spend 60 days working this and maybe one out of 60 days be in the in the right place and right time to contact these individuals," he said.
Little protection provided
Rarely used federal laws provide a little more protection, limiting interstate transport and sale of flytraps. But the plant's not considered an endangered species, lost behind hundreds of others on the waiting list.
Rep. Carolyn Justice, a Republican who represents the Wilmington area, pushed last year to begin regulating flytraps in the same fashion as ginseng, a plant used in a variety of herbal and Eastern medicines. The state has a permitting process that requires ginseng dealers to document where they acquired their crop, and North Carolina law makes harvesting ginseng on someone else's land a felony.
But Justice's proposal stalled in a legislative committee after the state Department of Agriculture said they didn't have people in place to enforce it.
"Our population down here is exploding," Justice said. "And as we encroach on these forests, we encroach on (the flytrap). We just need to be real careful monitoring how these are harvested and sold."
Some of the most delicate flytrap populations are found on the edges of civilization, just feet from schools or corridors for electrical transmission lines. Misty Buchanan, a botanist with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, worries about a small patch of flytraps in the heart of Wilmington next to playground blacktop.
Only this year did the state recategorize the population from "fair viability" — not under threat — to "poor viability."
"It's being kept alive only by people who care and want to keep the natural habitat of the coastal plain," Buchanan said.