No ESA listing for two wildflowers

Two wildflowers that inhabit livestock-grazing and energy-development country in Rio Blanco County and northeastern Utah won’t be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to a locally crafted conservation plan.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday it is withdrawing a proposal to list the Graham’s beardtongue and White River beardtongue as threatened species.

The conservation agreement “comprehensively addresses the threats to both species to the point that they no longer meet the definition of a threatened or endangered species under the ESA,” the agency said in a news release.

Several conservation groups had continued to call for the plants to be listed for protection, and criticized the agency’s decision Tuesday.

“The decision to deny these unique flowers protection is nothing more than a political decision to cave in to powerful oil and gas interests,” Tony Frates with the Utah Native Plant Society said in a release. “These wildflowers have waited decades for protection, and now they just might go extinct because of a bad decision by the Obama administration.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado and Utah, Rio Blanco County, Uintah County in Utah and several state-level agencies in Utah signed the conservation agreement.

“Really the goal of all of this stuff, all of the efforts that all these groups put in, including us, is to preserve the species, and listing isn’t the only way to preserve the species,” said Mark Sprague, natural resource specialist for Rio Blanco County.

For the county, the goal also is to look out for its economic mainstays.

“The two biggest economic engines in this county are ranching and energy, and so we do our best to try and protect those industries,” Sprague said.

Noreen Walsh, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in Tuesday’s release, “It’s important for us to find common ground and work collaboratively when addressing the needs of imperiled species. I believe that’s what we accomplished together with the signing of a range-wide conservation agreement for both beardtongues. We are confident that the conservation agreement will assist the Service and its conservation partners in protecting these rare beardtongues in both Utah and Colorado.”

The two plants are penstemons with showy flowers. The Graham’s beardtongue mostly occupies oil shale in the Green River geological formation, and the White River beardtongue is found in oil shale barrens near the White River, the Fish and Wildlife Service says.

There are 24 known populations of Graham’s beardtongue with some 40,300 plants, and eight populations of White River beardtongue with about 12,200 plants.

The agency last year had proposed to list the plants as threatened due to the cumulative impacts of energy development, grazing, invasive weeds and climate change.

It also had proposed to designate more than 83,000 acres as critical habitat for the flowers. The conservation agreement covers fewer than 50,000 acres and seeks to protect 64 and 76 percent, respectively, of the known populations of the Graham’s and White River beardtongues.

“Of this amount, 17.5 and 14.4 percent of Graham’s and White River beardtongues populations, respectively, will be protected on private lands,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Protections of the plants on private lands under the Endangered Species Act would have occurred only where there is a “federal nexus” involving something such as a project relying on federal funding or approval.

The conservation plan includes measures such as 300-foot buffers between plants and surface disturbances and a maximum of 2.5 percent permanent surface disturbances in conservation areas.

The Fish and Wildlife Service last year estimated that all known White River beardtongue plants and 91 percent of the Graham’s beardtongue plants will be vulnerable to direct and indirect impacts from oil shale, tar sands and traditional energy development. Lori Ann Burd with the Center for Biological Diversity on Tuesday called the agency’s decision “dirty politics for dirty oil shale.”

“The Service’s unscientific decision … to accept this completely voluntary and likely ineffective conservation agreement as a substitute for the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act sacrifices a beautiful part of our natural heritage for the greed of energy developers,” she said.

Sprague said participants in the conservation agreement want to demonstrate their willingness to cooperate to preserve species.

“I guess I see this happening more and more in the country, where rather than just going straight to listing it seems like the agencies are more open to this approach,” he said.

Sprague hopes the same approach might be implemented in the case of the greater sage-grouse, where a battle over a possible Endangered Species Act listing is occurring across several western states.


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