Despite litigation, research shows promise

A Colorado State University Restoration Ecology Lab crew plants rare wildflower species on a steep slope in Rio Blanco County in 2015 as part of research aimed at helping the species recover.

RELATED STORY: Wildflower ruling irks groups

A Colorado State University professor involved with experimental plantings of two rare Rio Blanco County plants on 12 research plots says the results to date are showing promise, despite the “unfortunate” litigation surrounding the project.

“I would say (the results) are as promising as can be at this point, and the plants are starting to flower, so we’re hopeful that will result in successful seeding of the plants into these plots,” said Mark Paschke, a professor at Colorado State University and research associate dean at its Warner College of Natural Resources.

The work involves the Dudley Bluffs twinpod and Dudley Bluffs bladderpod, both federally listed as threatened species. If the project proves successful, it could allow decision makers to consider whether an effort should be made to introduce the plants to other places in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, or even beyond, Paschke said.

He said trying to get rare plants to grow in new places is an increasingly common approach, especially in light of climate change, as people start to think about plants with restricted ranges and whether moving them around could prove important to their survival.

In the case of the two Rio Blanco County plants, “our role is simply to find out whether we could do this, and it’s looking like we can,” he said.

He said another question for the two species is whether their restricted range is because the soil is so unique, or whether the plants were eliminated elsewhere or never had the opportunity to travel across long distances to other suitable habitat.

The CSU project is funded by the oil and gas industry, “which is kind of ironic, isn’t it?” Paschke said.

The irony derives from the fact that the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association sued federal agencies over the project. The industry group’s concern isn’t the concept behind the research project, but the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t calling the plants in the 12 plots experimental, non-essential populations, which affects how human activities near them are managed (see related story).

CSU isn’t a defendant in that suit, and Paschke said he and the school still have a good relationship with most people in the industry, with which CSU long has partnered on research projects in the Piceance Basin. But he’s chagrined that the current project resulted in a court battle.

“It could have gone differently. It’s unfortunate that it went to litigation. I think we’re better off when we work together as opposed to against each other,” he said.

He said it’s generally agreed that everyone would be happy if the plants eventually no longer need to be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“We see this (research) as a way to possibly start down that road,” he said.

He said he was puzzled over the concerns that arose over the 12 research sites involved.

Most of the plots already had one of the plants on them, and researchers planted the second species on the same plots, Paschke said. The goal was to avoid creating new areas containing buffer zones where a consultation process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be required for activities such as oil and gas development. Instead, the planting would occur where the buffer zones already were in place.

Researchers are both planting seeds on site and transplanting plants started in greenhouses.

So far, Paschke said, researchers are seeing some plant survival and growth of seeds and plants at all 12 sites.

“We’ve had fairly good success for the transplants, much lower success from seeding, but that’s something that often takes a long time, for plants to establish from seeds,” he said.

The long-term success of the experiment will be measured by the degree to which the newly established plants flower and seed on their own, creating new generations. The ultimate test, Paschke said, is “to see whether these plants have babies.”


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