Oil and gas drilling, oil shale development and exurban sprawl identified as key threats
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — After a 20-year wait, a trio of rare western Colorado plans may soon have protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Parachute penstemon and Pagosa skyrocket have been candidate species since 1990, while DeBeque phacelia, a tiny West Slope wildflower, has been an official candidate since 1980.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to formally propose the listing June 23, triggering a 60-day public comment period. The phacelia and the penstemon are both threatened by oil and gas drilling and experimental oil shale development.
“These three wildflowers are a vital part of Colorado’s natural heritage,” said Josh Pollock, Conservation Director at Center for Native Ecosystems. “Let’s hope the Fish and Wildlife Service can quickly finalize this proposed designation and get them all the protection they so desperately need.”
The Pagosa skyrocket only grows in two known locations, on outcrops of shale soil near the town of Pagosa springs. Both spots are within the rights-of-way for state highways. As road improvements, new utility lines, and residential development around Pagosa Springs continue, these locations and other suitable habitat for the Pagosa skyrocket may be destroyed.
A listing wouldn’t cause oil and gas development to grind to a halt, but could require federal agencies to make sure that the plants’ habitats are protected. In most cases, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires avoidance of impacts to plants. In some cases, plants can actually be transplanted to suitable habitat. Read more about native plant conservation in Colorado here or scroll through a Colorado Natural Heritage Program report in a Scribd.com window at the end of this story.
The three plants, along with the remainder of the candidates, are the subject of a pending lawsuit in Washington DC brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Native Ecosystems and other groups.
Conservationists argue that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to make sufficient progress listing species known to warrant protection. Under the Bush administration, listing of new species ground to a near halt with only a total of 62 species listed, compared to 522 under Clinton and 231 during the senior Bush presidency.
Even with today’s proposal, the Obama administration has not substantially increased the pace of species listings. The administration has only proposed protection for a total of nine species, and the three today were the first proposed since July 9 of last year, meaning that few species are likely to see protection in the coming year.
The administration did finalize a proposal from the previous administration to protect 48 species from the Island of Kauai, but in the continental United States has only finalized protection for two plants. With today’s announcement, 250 species remain on the backlog of species waiting for protection, including seven added by the Obama administration.
“Today’s proposal is welcome news for these highly endangered plants and a step in the right direction, but still falls well short of the kind of progress that is needed to address the backlog of species waiting for protection,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Just as he’s failed to reform the Mineral Management Service, Interior Secretary Salazar has also failed to enact necessary reforms at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Parachute penstemon, also known as Parachute beardtongue, is a beautiful perennial with lavender-and-white, funnel-shaped flowers. It occurs in only seven populations on and around the Roan Plateau. Only four of those populations are considered large enough to be stable, but three of them are on land owned by Occidental Petroleum. Two of the remaining populations are on top of the Roan Plateau in locations recently leased for oil and gas development. Conservation organizations are challenging the leasing on top of the Roan Plateau in court.
“Parachute penstemon occurs in such specific places we must do all we can to preserve its habitat and its chance at survival,” said Thomas A. Grant III of the Colorado Native Plant Society’s Conservation Committee. “We must balance our need for oil and gas with our duty to preserve parts of the natural world which we cannot replace.”
Center for Native Ecosystems, the Colorado Native Plant Society, and Dr. Steve O’Kane (one of the botanists who discovered the species in the 1980s) petitioned in 2004 for the parachute penstemon to be moved from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s candidate list and given the protection under the Act it deserved.
DeBeque phacelia is also found near the Roan Plateau. It occurs only on slopes of clay soil around the growing town of DeBeque, west of Rifle, Colorado. All DeBeque phacelia habitat is found within the larger Piceance Basin region that is Colorado’s third largest natural gas producing area, according the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. More than ¾ of all DeBeque phacelia habitat had been leased for oil and gas drilling.
DeBeque phacelia is a low-growing annual plant with small yellowish flowers. It relies on a bank of seeds within the soil to continue coming up year after year, and therefore disturbance of the slopes where it is found or even the soil below such slopes can destroy its seeds. The Fish and Wildlife Service found that threats to the wildflower’s seed bank and habitat included natural gas exploration and pipelines, expansion of roads and other oil and gas facilities, and even proposed reservoir projects that would be used to support oil shale development experiments in the area north of DeBeque.
Center for Native Ecosytems, the Colorado Native Plant Society, and Dr. Steve O’Kane petitioned in 2005 for DeBeque phacelia to be moved from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s candidate list and given the protection under the Act it deserved.
“DeBeque phacelia is highly vulnerable to extinction, given how much interest there is in industrial development in its habitat and the likelihood of large-scale disturbance of the soil destroying the seed bank of this annual plant,” said Grant. “Protection under the Endangered Species Act will greatly reduce the risk of our actions causing it to go extinct.”
Pagosa skyrocket has small pinkish-white flowers that are star-shaped and clustered along its tall stems. It is considered one of the most threatened rare plant species in the state by multiple agencies and conservation organizations. There are only two known locations where Pagosa skyrocket grows. Both are on outcrops of shale soil near the town of Pagosa springs, and both are within the rights-of-way for state highways. As road improvements, new utility lines, and residential development around Pagosa Springs continue, these locations and other suitable habitat for the Pagosa skyrocket may be destroyed.
Click here for more information on Parachute penstemon.
Click here for more information on DeBeque phacelia. http://nativeecosystems.org/species/plants/debeque-phacelia