Protection Sought for Rare Colorado, Utah Wildflowers Threatened by Oil Shale Development

94 percent of known populations vulnerable to oil shale, tar sands


Robin Cooley, Earthjustice, (303) 263-2472


Tony Frates, Utah Native Plant Society, (801) 277-9240


Lori Ann Burd, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6405


Megan Mueller, Rocky Mountain Wild, (303) 704-9760

A broad coalition of conservation groups today sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urging the agency to grant Endangered Species Act protection to two imperiled wildflowers in Utah and Colorado. The Service proposed to protect the flowers and some of their most important habitat last August. Unfortunately, in May, bowing to pressure from industrial energy interests, the agency announced it was considering substituting protection under the Act with a completely voluntary “conservation agreement” to be executed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as well as state and county agencies—the same parties that for many years have worked to block federal protection of the Graham’s and White River beardtongues.

“These two gorgeous wildflowers are a treasured part of our natural heritage and we need to protect them for future generations to enjoy,” said Tony Frates with the Utah Native Plant Society. “They are threatened by an onslaught of proposed energy development. Only by listing these imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act can the Fish and Wildlife Service ensure that this development won’t drive these species to extinction.” 

The best available science makes clear that the two wildflowers need the protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive, according to the letter sent to the Service this week by the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Rocky Mountain Wild, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Native Plant Society, Western Resource Advocates and Western Watersheds Project.

“These plants, which live only in Utah and Colorado, will be on the fast track toward extinction if we don’t take immediate steps to protect them,” said Lori Ann Burd, endangered species campaign director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Service needs to stop playing politics and do everything in its power to prevent the extinction of these rare plants.” 

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.

“A plan providing for 35,000 fewer acres of protected lands than the Service has determined these plants need is de facto inadequate,” said Megan Mueller with Rocky Mountain Wild. “To survive, these beautiful wildflowers need the immediate protection of the Endangered Species Act, which is 99 percent effective at preventing extinction.”

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 awaited listing under the Endangered Species Act since 1975 and 1983 respectively. In the proposed listing rule, the Service estimated that up to 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.

“A federal court has already told the Fish and Wildlife Service that it cannot ignore the best scientific evidence available regarding the threats to the Graham’s beardtongue,” said Robin Cooley of Earthjustice. “The scientific evidence shows these species are threatened with extinction as a result of dirty fossil fuel development. It is time for the Service to stop making excuses and take action.”

In 2011 the Center for Native Ecosystems (now Rocky Mountain Wild), Utah Native Plant Society, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Colorado Native Plant Society, represented by Earthjustice, prevailed in a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the Graham’s beardtongue as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Also in 2011, the White River beardtongue was included in the Center for Biological Diversity’s landmark settlement speeding protection decisions for 757 imperiled species.

The Service has concluded that no significant economic impacts would result from designating critical habitat for these species, despite industry-backed assertions that protecting the two species would hurt local economies and impede energy development. Endangered Species Act protection would require proponents of any federally funded or permitted projects in the wildflowers’ habitat to consult with the Service to make sure the plants are not being harmed.

White River Beardtongue
A White River beardtongue. 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. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Photo)

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