Decision on wildflower protection expected soon
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – A federal judge said he’ll decide quickly whether the government erred in not giving protection to a wildflower that grows only in one place in the world – oil shale outcroppings in northeast Utah and northwest Colorado.
U.S. District Judge Walker D. Miller told attorneys Tuesday he’ll take weeks, not months, to consider arguments from environmental groups about whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have placed the Graham’s penstemon on the endangered species list.
The short plant, a member of the snapdragon family, has pale lavender flowers, pink-striped throats and bright orange staminodes. There are only an estimated 6,000 such plants growing in a total of five square miles scattered across the Uinta Basin, according to the lawsuit filed in 2008.
The agency dropped the flower from its endangered species candidate list in December 2006. It had been listed as a candidate for protection since 1980 and the decision came as efforts were under way to tap an estimated 2 trillion to 2.5 trillion barrels of oil in shale deposits in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.
Margaret Parish, an attorney for the environmental groups, argued that the agency did not follow proper procedure in dropping the flower from its endangered species candidate list. The agency needed to consider the harm to the plant from energy development, off-road vehicles and grazing, she said.
“It’s also commonsense,” Parish said in arguing that the agency would have to look at the totality of threats. The greatest threat to the plant is an “explosion of oil and gas development,” with plans for up to 3,000 wells either on or near the plant’s habitat, she said.
Hao-Chin Yang, an attorney representing the government said, “The agency squarely evaluated the threats to the species and rightfully concluded, based on the totality of the threats, it did not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.”
Yang said that when the agency de-listed the wildflower, it considered oil shale development too speculative and unlikely in the next 20 years because it’s not economically viable. The government considered grazing and off-road as insignificant threats, she said.
The Bush administration in 2008 approved a plan to make nearly 2 million acres of public land available for oil shale development and finalized rules for commercial production, which drew protests from environmentalists.
Companies are still testing the best ways to tap the vast reserves, but commercial production is likely at least a decade off.
Meanwhile, companies operating traditional wells in the area place their drilling pads away from the wildflowers, said Kathleen Sgamma, of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. The plant is on the Bureau of Land Management’s sensitive species list.
“We prefer that it remain in the current status, whereby we’re already taking measures to protect the plant,” Sgamma said.
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