White River beardtongue

A White River beardtongue, photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that two rare plants found only in Rio Blanco County and northeastern Utah don’t warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency said in a news release Wednesday that scientific analysis has shown that the threats to the Graham’s beardtongue and White River beardtongue aren’t as significant as had been believed when they were proposed in 2013 to be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“Our evaluation of the current condition of both beardtongues found tens of thousands of individual plants distributed across many populations. Both beardtongue species are widespread and abundant throughout their range, can withstand catastrophic events and adapt to changes within the foreseeable future,” the agency said in its release.

It said the conservation actions of partners also provided protections to the two plants.

The agency’s website for the two plants says the Graham’s beardtongue lives along a horseshoe-shaped band about 80 miles long and 6 miles wide extending from the extreme southeastern edge of Duchesne County in Utah to the northwestern edge of Rio Blanco County in Colorado. The White River beardtongue’s range extends from Uintah County, Utah, to Raven Ridge west of Rangely in Rio Blanco County.

The plants are associated with soils containing calcium carbonate derived from oil shale barrens of the Green River geologic formation, the Fish and Wildlife Service website says.

The White River beardtongue is a shrubby plant that grows up to 20 inches tall and produces showy lavender flowers. The Graham’s beardtongue is dormant for most of the year, and produces a large, pink and golden flower on stems up to 7 inches tall.

In a Federal Register notice, the agency said it has determined that the stressors affecting the plants, including energy development, grazing, invasive weeds, small population size and climate change, aren’t as significant as was thought when they were proposed for federal protections.

After the 2013 proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, state and local entities in Utah, and Rio Blanco County signed a voluntary agreement to protect the plants through limited surface disturbance and avoidance of the plants within 300 feet of them across more than 44,000 acres designated as conservation areas.

The BLM also applies the 300-foot protection on BLM land outside those conservation areas.

That agreement helped lead to the Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw its proposed listing of the plants. But conservation groups sued, and a federal court ruled that the withdrawal was contrary to the Endangered Species Act in part because the Fish and Wildlife Service counted as existing regulatory mechanisms measures of the voluntary agreement that hadn’t yet been enacted, and the agreement’s expiration date wasn’t taken into account.

The agreement expires in 2034 for government parties and 2029 for private parties. In its new analysis, the Fish and Wildlife Service says it has enough information to project out to 10 years for energy development impacts on the plants, and it has committed to assessing the status of the plants by the end of 2028, before private parties leave the voluntary agreement.

Its current assessment finds that even under an unlikely high energy development scenario involving oil and gas, oil shale and tar sands, the impacts of the threats to the two species would be limited.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said the total number of known plants for the two species has grown over time based on new survey information, not increasing population trends.

A similar plant, the Parachute beardtongue, is federally listed as a threatened species and known to exist globally only on isolated oil shale outcrops in the Roan Plateau area in Garfield County. The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comments until Feb. 12 on a draft plan for recovering that plant.