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— Wildflowers at risk from oil and gas drilling get Endangered Species Act protection —
RBC I The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that two Colorado wildflowers found only on and around the Roan Plateau and South Shale Ridge area are now protected as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and have been proposed for critical habitat protections that will be finalized next year. The federal agency identified the primary threat to both species as current and proposed oil and natural gas drilling operations on public lands.
Parachute penstemon, which occurs in only six populations on or near the base of the Roan Plateau; and DeBeque phacelia, which is found only in the vicinity of the growing town of DeBeque and South Shale Ridge, were both found by the Fish and Wildlife Service to be at risk of extinction from a variety of threats associated with oil and gas development including new roads and pipelines as well as off-road dirt bike and ATV riding.
“Endangered Species Act protection for these two rare and unique wildflowers will help us balance our need for domestic energy production with preserving our natural heritage,” said Josh Pollock, conservation director at Rocky Mountain Wild.
The announcement of protections for these two species is part of a trio of Endangered Species Act listings for wildflowers in Colorado. As part of the same final listing rule, the Fish and Wildlife Service also designated the Pagosa skyrocket as endangered. The Pagosa Skyrocket occurs in only two populations near the town of Pagosa Springs and is highly vulnerable to disturbance from residential and commercial development on the private lands where it is primarily found.
“Today three unique facets of Colorado’s stunning and diverse mountain and canyon country got the protection they so desperately needed,” said Pollock. “All three of these listings are necessary and sensible, given how vulnerable each one of these wildflowers is to the ways that we are using and converting the open lands around us here in the West.”
In a separate announcement in the Federal Register, the Fish and Wildlife Service also proposed critical habitat designation for all three species. The proposed habitat designation includes more than 19,000 acres for Parachute penstemon and almost 25,000 acres for the more widely distributed DeBeque phacelia. In the case of Parachute penstemon, the proposed designation acknowledged that the current populations alone would be insufficient to ensure the long-term survival and recovery of the species and therefore included a strip of potential recovery habitat at the north end of the Roan Plateau. The service determined that this area has the same habitat characteristics as the occupied habitat, including exposed slopes of oil shale. For all three species, the Fish and Wildlife Service also took into account the possible effects of climate change on such plants that are so narrowly dependent on particular soil types and expanded their proposed boundaries for the proposed habitat units beyond the edges of the current populations. The agency also identified these buffers around the currently occupied habitat as necessary to protect the base of pollinators—primarily ground nesting bees and wasps—upon which both species depend.
“The critical habitat proposal that comes along with today’s listing is a model of how the Fish and Wildlife Service should consider habitat protections for rare plants with limited ranges in the face of climate change and continued oil and gas drilling on public land,” said Pollock. “The agency appropriately limited their proposal to places that are not already developed, concentrated on federal public lands and took into account the need for additional habitat for recovery. While we can’t know everything climate change will do to an individual species, we must begin to acknowledge that it will change habitat for many at-risk species and do what we can to protect additional places with that in mind.”
Both species have been official candidates for Endangered Species Act protection for at least 20 years. In the case of DeBeque phacelia, the Colorado species has been on the official waiting list for 31 years. Center for Native Ecosystems (which has now merged to form Rocky Mountain Wild), the Colorado Native Plant Society and Dr. Steve O’Kane petitioned to move the two species off the candidate list and finalize their protection under the ESA in 2004 and 2005.
“To say that these protections are overdue would be an extreme understatement,” said Pollock, “but the most important thing is that they are in place now. We hope it is in time to secure a future for these three parts of our web of life in Western Colorado along with the dozens of other rare species that carve out a life in the same difficult habitat.”
There will be a 60 day period for public comment on the proposed critical habitat designation for all three species.
Parachute penstemon, also known as Parachute beardtongue, is a beautiful perennial with lavender and white, funnel-shaped flowers. It occurs in only six populations on and around the Roan Plateau. Only three of those populations are considered large enough to be stable, but two 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.
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 it deserved under the act.
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, Colo. 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 three-fourths 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 Ecosystems, 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 it deserves under the act.