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Groups Sue Over Decision Not to Protect Wildflowers in Uinta Basin

Seven conservation groups have filed suit against the Department of Interior (DOI) and its U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) after regulators declined to add two rare wildflowers that only grow in the Uinta Basin in Colorado and Utah to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Meanwhile, DOI Secretary Sally Jewell was scheduled to join Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Friday to announce an agreement to encourage ranchers and other landowners in central Oregon to protect the habitat of the greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird impacted by oil and gas activities in western states.

Last Thursday, the conservation groups -- Rocky Mountain Wild, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Utah Native Plant Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Canyon Trust, Western Resource Advocates and the Western Watersheds Project -- filed a lawsuitin U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado [No. 1:15-cv-00615].

The groups are challenging an FWS decision in August not to add Graham's beardtongue and White River beardtongue to the ESA. The DOI, FWS, Jewell and Noreen Walsh, a regional director for the FWS, were all named as defendants.

According to the complaint, the wildflowers, which are also called penstemons, "live almost exclusively in areas targeted for unconventional oil shale and tar sands mining and traditional oil and gas drilling. Energy development, along with livestock grazing and trampling, small population size, invasive weeds, and climate change, threaten the beardtongues with extinction...

"FWS based its withdrawal decision on a Conservation Agreement [CA] that it developed with local counties, state and federal agencies, and the energy industry. The CA relies on speculative, future conservation measures that, even if implemented, will provide insufficient protection to only a fraction of the beardtongue habitat that FWS has determined to be essential to the conservation of the species."

But the groups said the CA was "not based on the best available science" and called for the court to intervene.

"FWS recognized oil shale mining as a threat to the beardtongues in large part because of the substantial number of beardtongue plants living on state and private lands where such mining is planned," the complaint said. "However, under pressure from the state of Utah, Uintah County, and the oil shale industry, FWS acquiesced to a 15-year CA that includes no protections for beardtongues on the lands most likely to be mined in the next 15 years."

Details of the DOI agreement in Oregon to protect the greater sage grouse were not available as of Friday afternoon, but the meeting with Jewell, Brown and other officials was to take place in Bend, OR. In a brief statement, DOI said "the agreements are part of an overall partnership approach to conserving the sagebrush landscapes throughout the West while providing regulatory certainty for landowners."

Last January, the Western Governors' Association (WGA) -- which represents 19 Western states, including Oregon -- sent a letter to Jewell asking for clarification of DOI's efforts to save the greater sage grouse. They wanted to know when a final decision would be made on whether the bird would be added to the ESA (see Daily GPI, Jan. 20).

A budget bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama last December prohibits FWS from writing or issuing a rule to list the bird as threatened or endangered under ESA, but WGA governors said DOI interpreted the law to allow all work leading up to a listing decision.

The greater sage grouse was a candidate for protection under the ESA in 2010, but following a court settlement in 2011, the agency agreed to not make a decision on whether to list the bird as threatened or endangered before Sept. 30 (see Daily GPI, Dec. 30, 2011).

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