Plants near oil shale sites cited in lawsuit

Environmental groups sued a federal agency Thursday, demanding it reconsider endangered-species status for two plants known to grow on oil shale formations.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year opted against listing two penstamon species, the White River beardtongue and Graham’s beardtongue, as endangered.

The move followed extensive lobbying of the Obama administration by the oil shale industry, Uintah County, Utah, and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration for the Fish and Wildlife Service to accept a 15-year conservation agreement protecting the plants on private land and allowing development to proceed.

“The conservation agreement is a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney representing the environmental groups. “Although the Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified habitat that was essential to the survival of these wildflowers, the agency rolled over during negotiations and sacrificed more than 40 percent of this essential habitat, including lands the oil-shale industry plans to strip mine in the next 15 years.”

The agreement, however, was a benefit to the plants, said the National Oil Shale Association.

Private landowners — including companies with oil shale interests — agreed to set aside 2,800 acres of private lands for the benefit of the plants, said Brad McCloud, executive director of the association.

“By not listing them (as endangered), the plants got better protection than had they been listed and not had protection on those private lands,” McCloud said.

In August 2013, the Service proposed to provide Endangered Species Act protection to the wildflowers on nearly 76,000 acres, but accepted the agreement instead the next year.

“The Endangered Species Act requires the Service to make decisions based on science, not politics,” said Megan Mueller, senior biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild. “The science here is clear, these wildflowers must be protected from strip mining and drilling.”

The association anticipated a lawsuit would be filed, McCloud said.

“From the outside, it seems to be targeting the industry,” he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t comment on litigation, an official said.

Other organizations suing include Rocky Mountain Wild, Center for Biological Diversity, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Canyon Trust, Western Resource Advocates, Western Watersheds Project and Utah Native Plant Society.


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