SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Conservationists are condemning a proposed deal between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state and county officials in Utah intended to keep two rare species of desert flowers off the federal list of endangered species.
Environmentalists have been trying for more than 30 years to win Endangered Species Act protection for the Graham's and White River beardtongue species of penstemon, which are known to grow only on oil shale outcroppings in the Uinta Basin.
The Fish and Wildlife Service formally proposed listing of the plants last August. But the agency issued a draft conservation agreement on Monday in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management and others who say the deal would better protect the plants without the economic consequences a listing could have for oil exploration in northeast Utah and northwest Colorado.
Tony Frates of the Utah Native Plant Society says the agreement is intended to protect the industry, not the wildflowers.
"The parties to this conservation plan ... have worked to prevent protection of these incredible plants for many years," Frates said. He said the fact the deal is nullified if the flowers become federally protected "shows that this agreement is not really about conservation."
Graham's beardtongue occupies a horseshoe-shaped band 6 miles wide stretching 80 miles across southern Uintah County. A member of the snapdragon or figwort family, it has pale lavender flowers, pink-striped throats and bright orange staminodes that flower in the spring.
Three years ago, a federal judge in Denver upheld a 2008 challenge from conservation groups seeking to overturn a federal decision that earlier denied protection of the plants. Federal biologists have concluded its chief threats come from habitat loss because of energy development, road construction and off-road vehicle use.
The draft conservation agreement identifies federal and state lands where surface-disturbing activities would be severely limited. Agency officials said it also would provide protections and mitigation strategies on private and other non-federal lands that might not occur under the Endangered Species Act.
The Salt Lake City-based SWCA Environmental Consultants prepared a report on the proposed agreement for the Fish and Widlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Uintah County, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.