DENVER (CN) - The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service "rolled over" to oil and gas lobbyists and dropped proposed protections for two rare wildflowers that are losing nearly half their habitat to drilling, seven environmental groups claim in court.
Lead plaintiff Rocky Mountain Wild claims that a year of lobbying from the oil and gas industry persuaded Fish & Wildlife to drop protections for the White River beardtongue and Graham's beardtongue, which live only along the Colorado-Utah border.
Because beardtongue habitat is rich in oil shale formations, the oil and gas industry has had its eyes on it for decades.
Tensions seemed quelled in 2013 when the Fish & Wildlife Service moved to protect the flowers as endangered species. But it reversed itself in August 2014, sparking this federal lawsuit.
"Although the Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified the habitat that was essential to the survival of these wildflowers, the agency rolled over during negotiations and sacrificed more than 40 percent of this essential habitat," plaintiffs' attorney Robin Cooley said in a statement.
Cooley called it a "giveaway to the fossil fuel industry."
Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), one of the groups that lobbied for strip mining in beardtongue habitat, claimed the harm to the species does not outweigh the benefits.
SITLA attorney John Andrews said the deal with Fish & Wildlife will "buy for all of our miners the ability to strip mine and destroy any [wildflowers] that are located on those sites in exchange for some conservation," on lands that "wouldn't be disturbed anyway."
Rocky Mountain Wild senior biologist Megan Mueller disagreed. She said the Endangered Species Act requires Fish & Wildlife "to make decisions based on science, not politics. The science here is clear, these wildflowers must be protected from strip mining and drilling."
The plaintiffs want Fish& Wildlife ruling remanded and the plants relisted as candidates for threatened species.
Plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Utah Native Plant Society, the Grand Canyon Trust, Western Resource Advocates, and the Western Watersheds Project.