Oil Shale Development Threatens Rare Plants

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing two penstemons in Colorado and Utah as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The agency also proposed designating critical habitat for the Graham’s beardtongue and the White River beardtongue in a separate action.
     In July 1975, the Smithsonian Institution petitioned the USFWS on behalf of the Graham’s beardtongue, and a listing proposal was published in 1976 to list it as endangered. However, a 1978 amendment to the ESA required all proposals over two years old be withdrawn.
     According to a later listing proposal in 2006, the USFWS was aware of the “strong interest in oil shale development with its potential for extensive disruption of much of the species’ known habitat,” throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, but cited the lack of surveys over the species’ entire range as a reason to delay action.
     The agency was petitioned in 1990 and again in 2002 to list Graham’s beardtongue. An ensuing court settlement resulted in the January 2006 listing proposal, but the agency withdrew it in December of that year.
     “The withdrawal of the proposed rule was based on information provided during the public comment period. This information led us to conclude that the threats to Graham’s beardtongue identified in the proposed rule, particularly energy development, were not as significant as previously believed and that currently available data did not indicate that threats to the species and its habitat … were likely to endanger the species in the foreseeable future,” the agency said in its current listing proposal.
     The 2002 petitioners filed suit in 2008, and the U.S. District Court ruled in their favor in June 2011, which vacated the withdrawal and reinstated the January 2006 listing proposal. In light of new information, the agency made the decision to publish a new proposed rule.
     “Graham’s beardtongue is closely associated with the richest oil shale-bearing strata in the Mahogany ledge, which makes the species highly vulnerable to extirpation [extinction] from potential oil shale or tar sands mining,” the agency acknowledged in the current action.
     The White River beardtongue was first recognized as a new species in 1982. In 1983, the agency designated the White River beardtongue as a category 1 candidate for listing. The category system was abandoned in 1996, but no further action was taken on behalf of the White River beardtongue until a 2011 settlement agreement between the USFWS and environmental groups resulted in a work plan to speed listing decisions for hundreds of species across the country, including the White River beardtongue.
     Both the long-lived plants are found on petroleum-bearing oil shale. The Graham’s flower is vivid pink, while the White River’s flower is lavender. Both have a prominent sterile male flower part or “beardtongue” that contrasts dramatically with the two-lipped petals.
     Both plants face threats from energy exploration and development, livestock grazing, invasive weeds and climate change. The White River flower may be even more vulnerable due to its smaller population sizes. “Approximately 69 percent of the known White River beardtongue plants are directly associated with the Mahogany ledge,” the agency said. “It is now highly likely that oil shale and tar sands mining will occur across the ranges of both of these species in the near future” and the agency estimates that “as much as 82 and 94 percent of the total known populations of Graham’s and White River beardtongues will be vulnerable to both direct loss and indirect negative impacts such as habitat fragmentation from oil shale and tar sands development.”
     In a separate action, the agency proposed 68,000 acres as critical habitat for the Graham’s and 15,000 acres as critical habitat for the White River beardtongue.
     Comments on both proposed actions are due by Oct. 7.

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