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Threat of suit backs wildflower

Published April 6, 2007 1:31 am

Conservation groups seek protection for Graham's penstemon
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A collection of conservation groups on Thursday served notice to the Interior Department of their intent to sue if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fails to protect a rare wildflower found in the Uinta Basin.

The Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, the Utah Native Plant Society, the Colorado Native Plant Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision last December to remove the Graham's penstemon from consideration for "threatened" status on Endangered Species List - after proposing to add the plant to the list in January of 2006.

"This is one of the rarest and most threatened plant species in Utah," the Utah Native Plant Society's Tony Frates said in a statement. "The failure to list the species in 2006 was a result of politics rather than science."

The environmental groups are claiming that the FWS policy change on Graham's penstemon is part of a series of similar agency reversals that occurred under Julie MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department and Bush administration appointee.

The Interior Department's inspector general last month issued a report concluding that MacDonald, a civil engineer by profession, had repeatedly overruled the recommendations of agency biologists who made positive findings on the listing status of different plant and animal species.

The environmental groups believe that Graham's penstemon likely suffered the same fate. But Laura Romin, a spokeswoman with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Salt Lake City field offices, says that is not the case.

"We weren't given any direction by the department," Romin said. "Our decision was based largely on a lack of information. We don't have enough information to say that the lands in the Uinta Basin where Graham's penstemon is located are under imminent threat. The biggest issue for the species is oil shale development, and that hasn't occurred yet."

But environmentalists say the agency has already conceded that nearly 90 percent of the penstemon's populations in Utah and Colorado are located in areas where active energy development is under way. They dispute FWS's findings.

"The claim that new scientific information underpins the decision to withdraw listing of Graham's penstemon as threatened is inaccurate," Vincent Tepedino, a retired Utah State University professor, said in a statement. "No such evidence exists."

Romin says that despite the agency's decision not to list the wildflower, efforts are under way to protect it, citing a pending agreement between FWS, the Bureau of Land Management and Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

"We'll watch the species closely," she said. "We can always take action later if it becomes necessary."

jbaird@sltrib.com