For Immediate Release:  November 18, 2003

UTAH NATIVE PLANT SOCIETY COLORADO NATIVE PLANT SOCIETY
CENTER FOR NATIVE ECOSYSTEMS SOUTHERN UTAH WILDERNESS ALLIANCE

Contacts: Dr. Leila M. Shultz, Research Professor, Utah State University, (435) 797-0485
Jill Handwerk, Botanist, Colorado Native Plant Society, (970) 221-3460
Erin Robertson, Staff Biologist, Center for Native Ecosystems, (303) 546-0214
Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 486-3161 x16

Rare Wildflower Faces Extinction: Oil and Gas Drilling Threatens Critical Plant Habitat

Paonia, Colorado A dramatic increase in oil and gas drilling threatens a rare wildflower with extinction, botanists and conservation groups charged in a lawsuit filed today.  Graham's penstemon is found primarily on public lands and survives only in the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado.  It is restricted to oil shale outcrops in this remote region.  While languishing on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Act Candidate list for 27 years, it has received almost no monitoring or conservation attention even as the threats of oil and gas drilling, overgrazing, and irresponsible off-road vehicle use have grown in magnitude.

"Graham's penstemon is one of the most beautiful plants in Utah and Colorado, but its very existence is threatened by oil and gas drilling and irresponsible off-road vehicle use," said Jill Handwerk, a botanist representing the Colorado Native Plant Society.

In an emergency petition filed in October 2002, the groups asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the plant under the Endangered Species Act.  By law, the Service had three months in which to make a preliminary finding about the plant's conservation status, and one year to issue a formal ruling.  More than a year later the Service and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton still refuse to make either of these required findings and the plant and its habitat remain unprotected.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has neglected Graham's penstemon for decades," said Erin Robertson, Staff Biologist for Center for Native Ecosystems.  "The Service refuses to act even though time is running out for this wildflower."  Because of the severe threats facing the species and its narrow range, Graham's penstemon was an original candidate for federal protection in 1976 when Congress first enacted the Endangered Species Act.  Nearly 30 years later it remains unprotected.

A non-stop procession of oil and gas leasing, exploration and development in the Uinta Basin has pushed the species to the brink of extinction.  For example, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) upcoming November 24th oil and gas lease in Utah proposes to lease public lands for future development without adequately protecting Graham’s penstemon.  In addition, the Utah BLM has approved or is considering several large oil and gas exploration and drilling projects in the plant’s habitat, including the Veritas 2-D seismic project, the largest in Utah BLM history.

Despite its Candidate status, the BLM has even neglected monitoring for this species for nine sites on BLM land, the most recent population data still dates back to 1979.  Dr. Leila M. Shultz (who is not a party to the lawsuit), a Research Professor at Utah State University, conducted that 1979 penstemon inventory.  Commenting on the groups’ lawsuit, she stated, “Graham’s penstemon populations are so limited in extent and so tied to oil-bearing soils that no one can argue with the fact that they require immediate protection.  That’s what we concluded nearly 25 years ago, and it’s all the more true today.  While it may be possible for oil and gas development to take place without damaging this biologically unique species, the burden of proof should be on the developers.”

"The Bureau of Land Management is trading away our natural heritage to appease oil and gas companies looking for quick profit," added SUWA attorney Steve Bloch.  "This is yet another example of how BLM's decision to make oil and gas development its No. 1 priority is leaving a ruined natural heritage in its wake."  Oil and gas drilling has dramatically increased in the Uinta Basin in recent years.  For example, the BLM's Vernal Field Office, which manages the Utah portion of the Basin, approved over three times the ten-year-average number of wells in 2001.

"This beautiful wildflower evolved to survive under tough conditions, but it simply can’t handle the habitat destruction that’s happening today," added Robertson.  Only 7,000 individual Graham's penstemon plants are thought to survive, the bulk of which are on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  Out of the 36 known Graham’s penstemon sites, a quarter had fewer than ten plants when last surveyed.

Center for Native Ecosystems, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Native Plant Society, and Colorado Native Plant Society, represented by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver, filed the lawsuit.

Graham's penstemon is a member of the snapdragon family and produces between two and eighteen spectacular lavender flowers. For more information about Graham's penstemon, contact Center for Native Ecosystems at cne@nativeecosystems.org  or visit  www.nativeecosystems.org/grahamspenstemon/.

 

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