SALT LAKE CITY — Conservation groups condemned a decision this week from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw a proposal to give Endangered Species Act protection to two imperiled wildflowers in Utah and Colorado.
The service proposed to protect the White River and Graham’s beardtongues and some of their most important habitat in August 2013 based on imminent threats from energy development, including oil shale. At the time, scientists estimated that 94 percent of the plants’ populations could be hurt or lost because of energy development.
The agency justified today’s withdrawal based on a hastily drafted, strictly voluntary “conservation agreement” with the Bureau of Land Management and several state and county agencies.
The groups are likely to challenge this week’s decision.
“The decision to deny these unique flowers protection is nothing more than a political decision to cave in to powerful oil and gas interests,” said Tony Frates with the Utah Native Plant Society. “These wildflowers have waited decades for protection, and now they just might go extinct because of a bad decision by the Obama administration.”
Graham’s and White River beardtongues are found only in oil shale outcroppings in northeastern Utah’s Uinta Basin and northwestern Colorado’s Piceance Basin. The two flowers have been waiting for Endangered Species Act protection since 1975 and 1983 respectively. In last year’s proposed listing rule, the service estimated that up to 94 percent of the total known populations of Graham’s and White River beard tongues will be vulnerable to both direct loss and indirect negative impacts, such as habitat fragmentation from oil shale and tar sands development.
“This is dirty politics for dirty oil shale,” said Lori Ann Burd with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The service’s unscientific decision … to accept this completely voluntary and likely ineffective conservation agreement as a substitute for the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act sacrifices a beautiful part of our natural heritage for the greed of energy developers.”
In its proposal last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that 84,000 acres should be protected as critical habitat for the two plants. But the new conservation agreement provides for only 49,000 acres of so-called conservation areas to be voluntarily protected. In addition to energy development, the plants are severely threatened by livestock grazing.
“Studies have shown that grazing has removed every single plant in some of these populations,” said Laura Welp of the Western Watersheds Project. “The American people have a right to expect government agencies to follow the best available science and their own rules to prevent extinction. The service knows what it needs to do to protect these plants, but politics have trumped science once again.”