WASHINGTON (CN) - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed endangered status for a small flower that grows only on one mesa complex in Southern California. In a separate action, the USFWS proposed to designation of 5,785 acres in Santa Barbara County as critical habitat for the plant, called the Vandenberg monkeyflower.
The listing is part of a court-approved five-year workplan that came out of a 2011 settlement agreement between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity to speed listing decisions for hundreds of species across the country, according to the group's statement.
the monkeyflower has lost 53 percent of its available habitat due to incursions by nonnative invasive plants and development pressures.
The development of Vandenberg Air Force Base alone accounts for a loss of 6,104 acres of the flowers' historic habitat.
Residential and commercial development, and utility and pipeline construction and maintenance all contribute to habitat fragmentation and provide opportunities for invasive species to get established in disturbed areas.
The greatest threat to the monkeyflower is from invasive nonnative plants, which displace native plants and directly alter the habitat.
In 1998, 220 nonnative plant species were documented on Vandenberg AFB, 17 of which are considered to be of "high concern" because they create severe impacts on the native ecosystem. Some of the worst offenders are veldt grass, pampas grass, iceplant, bromes, Sahara mustard, Italian thistle and bull thistle, the action noted.
The shallow-rooted annual monkeyflower grows in sandy open spaces between other chaparral plants. Invasive plants not only move in and fill up these spaces, but they also create dense thatch that can alter the natural wildfire cycle. "The abundance of nonnative vegetation initiates a positive feedback cycle based on increased biomass, changes in the distribution of flammable biomass, and increased flammability," the action said.
Only nine populations of the monkeyflower remain in the Burton Mesa complex, which is comprised of low, flat-topped hills averaging 400 feet in elevation between the Purisima Hills to the north and the Santa Ynez River to the south. Seven of the nine populations have 850 or fewer individual plants. Four of the populations are on Vandenberg AFB.
"Of the approximately 5,785 acres proposed for critical habitat, 4,674 acres are on state lands within the Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve and La Purisima Mission State Historical Park that account for 84 percent of the area proposed and five out of the nine Vandenberg monkeyflower populations. The remaining areas proposed for critical habitat consist of 796 acres on private lands, 38 acres on local agency lands, and 277 acres on federal Department of Justice lands at the Lompoc Penitentiary," the USFWS said in its press release.
The agency maintains that critical habitat designation does not affect land ownership or private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits. It also does not establish refuges or preserves, the agency said.
The USFWS is considering exempting certain parts of the proposed habitat due to ongoing conservation management plans that benefit the monkeyflower, but acknowledged that some concerns exist regarding continued availability of funding and staffing to implement the plans.
"Only the full protection of the Endangered Species Act for the monkeyflower and its habitat will make sure this lovely yellow flower isn't lost forever," Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the CBD, was quoted as saying in the group's response to the listing proposal.
Comments are due by Dec. 30.
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