Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with support from the states of Utah and Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and many others, withdrew a proposal to list Graham’s beardtongue and White River beardtongue wildflowers under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Although an ESA listing provides protections to plants that are in danger of or threatened with extinction, in some cases the best conservation occurs when multiple partners work together to protect a species on federal, state and private lands, which is exactly what we have done.
In August 2013 we proposed to list both plants as threatened under the ESA because of potential threats they faced from energy development, livestock grazing, invasive weeds, small population sizes and climate change.
After our proposal, we worked with Uintah and Rio Blanco counties, the state of Utah, Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and BLM in Utah and Colorado to develop conservation measures to protect these rare wildflowers in the Uintah Basin in Utah and on the Colorado/Utah border.
The 2014 Conservation Agreement establishes 44,373 acres of conservation areas managed to prevent impacts to the species for the next 15 years. Within these conservation areas, surface-disturbing activities such as energy development will be limited: new surface disturbance will be limited to 2.5 percent of areas where White River beardtongue occurs and 5 percent where Graham’s beardtongue occurs. Prior to any surface-disturbing activities, surveys will be conducted to identify where plants occur. Surface-disturbing activity on BLM lands and within established conservation areas on all lands will avoid Graham’s and White River beardtongues by at least 300 feet. To ensure these measures are followed, SITLA and Uintah County will enact enforceable ordinances and regulations, which are as strong or stronger than those an ESA listing would have.
Some interested parties may say this was a political decision to placate the energy industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. This decision, like dozens of others, was developed and made by local career employees of the service working together with private landowners to ensure these amazing desert flowers remain for generations. Because Graham’s and White River beardtongues are protected under the agreement, they do not need ESA protections, which is why we withdrew our proposal.
The strength of the agreement is that it protects plants on private and state lands where they may not receive protections under an ESA listing. Private landowners, private energy companies and SITLA all stepped up to make this an unprecedented conservations success story in Utah. To be a key partner in this effort is significant, and we know it signals a positive way forward for rare plant conservation for many years to come.
Michael Thabault is the assistant regional director of Ecological Services for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, Lakewood, Colo.
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