Endangered species decision nears for wildflower

A Colorado judge will decide whether a rare wildflower merits Endangered Species Act protection from energy development, livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use and other activities in northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah.

U.S. District Court Judge Walker D. Miller heard oral arguments Tuesday in Denver over a lawsuit challenging a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision not to list the Graham’s penstemon as threatened.

The flower is a member of the snapdragon family. The known population of about 6,000 plants is found only on oil shale outcrops in Rio Blanco County in Colorado and three counties in Utah.

As a result of prior litigation, Fish and Wildlife submitted a court-ordered proposal for a threatened species, listing for the plant in early 2006. It reversed course later that year. In 2008, near the end of the Bush administration, the Center for Native Ecosystems and other environmental groups sued. They contend Fish and Wildlife changed its mind after the Bureau of Land Management campaigned against protection.

Attorney Meg Parish argued on behalf of the plaintiffs Tuesday. She said Miller indicated he may rule in a couple of weeks.

“But these things usually take a little longer than that,” she said.

Although possible affects of oil shale development on the plant are one concern for the plaintiffs, “the biggest threat that we see happening right now is oil and gas development,” Parish said.

Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said the BLM already considers the plant a sensitive species and requires companies to survey for it and shift operations away from it.

“I think it’s another example of groups wanting to impose another layer of federal regulations on top of efforts locally on the ground to protect the species,” Sgamma said.

Parish said some BLM oil and gas leases in Colorado include no-surface-occupancy restrictions to protect the Graham’s penstemon, but that’s not the case in Utah, where a lot of drilling is occurring around the plant’s habitat.

In an October court filing, government attorneys said the lawsuit relies on a lot of anecdotal information and speculation about impacts on the plant.

They said Fish and Wildlife withdrew the proposed threatened species listing after further evaluation found the identified threats to the plant “are not significant.”

They said the prospects for oil shale development remained uncertain, and any such development initially wasn’t likely to overlap with the plant’s habitat and probably wouldn’t take place for at least 20 years.


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