Threatened cactus disappears from county construction site

During the construction of a county road in Whitewater two threatened Colorado hookless cactus, which are found nowhere else in the world except here in northwestern Colorado, vanished overnight, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The two cactus were discovered during a survey the county was required to do as part of a road and sewerage project.

The county construction project is part of a larger campus being built near the Mesa County Landfill, 3071 U.S. Highway 50.

When finished the area will house Mesa County Animal Services, a Grand Valley Transit maintenance facility and a new Mesa County Public Works facility.

The sewer line will connect the campus to the Clifton Sanitation District.

“It was actually us that discovered the cactus,” said Pete Baier, director of Mesa County Public Works.

He said the cactus were found in April and were flagged so that others might avoid them.

After finding the rare cactus the county decided to redesign the road to go around them, he said.

But when the surveyors returned to take new measurements the cactus were gone, he said.

Baier added that the initial survey, in which the cactus were discovered, may have inadvertently led to their demise. The survey team marked the cactus so they are easy to locate, but that also meant they could have been easily spotted by curios passersby, who may have uprooted the plants.

“We were surprised,” said Ellen Mayo, a botanist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when asked about the incident.

“This is about the first instance where we heard of the cactus, this particular one, being dug up in the wild.”

The Colorado hookless cactus was designated as a unique species just this month. Prior to this new designation the cactus was lumped in with two other new species, which were collectively known as Uinta Basin hookless cactus. The Uinta cactus was listed by Fish and Wildlife as threatened in 1979. The three new species remain on the threatened list. They are the Colorado hookless (Sclerocactus); the Pariette cactus (Sclerocactus brevispinus); and the Uinta Basin hookless cactus (Sclerocactus wetlandicus).

The Colorado hookless is found only between the Grand Valley and Delta County out to De Beque and is typically found along benches and slopes leading down into the river valleys, Mayo said.

It is listed as a threatened species (not an endangered species) by the federal government because of its limited numbers and because there is growing pressure on its habitat. The cactus’ range is threatened by a growing population of humans that continue to build structures in what used to be prime territory for the unique cactus, according to wildlife officials.

The federal protections afforded to the Colorado hookless only apply on federal lands and surveys, that identify the rare plants, are usually only done for construction projects that use some federal dollars, like the county’s project in Whitewater.

The cactus, although listed as threatened and under the protection of the federal government, have no protection on private property.

“All the private developments that are going on in the valley will take out a lot of individuals,” Mayo said.

The founder of a local group of cacti lovers, Don Campbell, said there are many species of plants in the world and each, like the Colorado hookless, have value.

“It is part of the biological diversity and many of us think that is important to maintain,” said Campbell, the current vice president and founder of the Chinle Cactus & Succulent Society.

The Society maintains a small garden, which contains a few examples of the Colorado hookless, at the Mesa County Fairgrounds, he said.

Baier said the county notified the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife when the cactus disappeared and the county is now working with the federal agencies on “mitigation.”

“We have offered to grow some more at the Botanical Gardens (of Western Colorado, 641 Struthers Ave.),” Baier said.


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