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Botanists seek umbrella for Parachute penstemon

Photographer Steve O'Kane
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Conservation groups and botanists filed Monday for endangered species protection for the Parachute penstemon, as gas drilling creeps closer to the plant’s habitat.

Discovered in 1986, botanists have found the rare desert wildflower in only five spots, including two spots on the Roan Plateau. The Bush administration is pushing to open the plateau for gas drilling, and environmentalists say drilling threatens the plant with extinction.

A member of the snapdragon family, the Parachute penstemon blooms from mid-June to mid-July, depending on temperature and rainfall, producing a showy array of lilac-gray flowers. It has been listed as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act for 14 years, lacking any guarantee of protection.



“I believe in trying every possible means of protecting rare plants before resorting to listing under the Endangered Species Act,” explained Peggy Lyon of Ridgway, a Colorado Native Plant Society botanist, referring to efforts to revive the plant in the region.

At least one such effort has been tried with the Parachute penstemon.



The plant died out in one of its Roan Plateau locations in 1997 or 1998, but a Utah State University graduate student had already collected seeds, said Erin Robertson, staff biologist for the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver.

The student successfully raised seedlings and transplanted them back to the original location, but only about 10 of the plants survived, Robertson noted.

The plant’s fragility, and the forward march of gas drilling, led conservationists and botanists to seek the endangered species designation.

“In this case I’m convinced that it’s the only way to save this species from extinction,” Lyon said.

“I know of no other Colorado species that comes close to being this rare,” said biology professor Steve O’Kane of Cedar Falls, Iowa, one of two botanists who discovered the plant in 1986.

“Add to that the potential for oil and gas drilling and the devastating prospect of oil shale mining, and the Parachute penstemon is one of the most endangered species on Earth,” O’Kane said.

Lawsuit may be next step

Lyon and O’Kane joined with the Center for Native Ecosystems, based in Denver, the Colorado Native Plant Society and Parachute botanist Janey Hines Broderick to file an emergency citizens petition Monday under provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

The act gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 90 days to issue a formal ruling about the plant’s status.

But it’s unlikely the agency will do much more than rule whether the filing is complete enough to be considered, said Diane Katzenberger, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. She said the agency’s workload is too great to deal with all the species requests that are filed.

It’s common for advocacy groups to press the point by filing a lawsuit if the agency doesn’t actually make a ruling on the plant’s status within the 90-day period, she said.

At present, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working on 73 court orders dealing with endangered plant and animal species nationwide, she said.

Plant considered in Roan Plateau plan

Meanwhile, the BLM has been watching the Roan Plateau plants, and considered the plants’ locations in developing a proposed management plan for the Roan, said Ellen Mayo, the sole botanist for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Colorado.

The Roan’s two Parachute penstemon patches are atop Anvil Points and at the Anvil Points mine site, which have been leased by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for seismic exploration, Robertson said.

The other sites are on Mount Callahan and Mount Logan in Mesa County, and are controlled by Occidental Petroleum Corp.

Mayo said the Parachute penstemon isn’t high on her work list because it’s very unlikely that oil shale mining would resume at Anvil Points.

But she did work with BLM officials to make sure the plant will be protected in the Roan Plateau management plan, and she plans to contact Occidental to discuss a conservation agreement for the patches of penstemon on its lands.

Focus more attention on plant

But as the prospects of gas drilling draw close with the expected release this year of the Roan Plateau management plan, environmentalists hope to draw more attention to the fate of the rare plant.

An endangered species listing would require land managers and the Fish and Wildlife Service to craft a recovery plan for the plant, Robertson said.

“People need to sit down and think about what would prevent extinction. Any project on federal lands would have to be scrutinized to take into account the needs of the penstemon and its habitat,” she said.

Listing may also promote more research on the plant ” discovering how it is pollinated, for example ” and secure funds for growing and transplanting the plant elsewhere.

Robertson said the endangered species listing would also give BLM officials a stronger position in preventing any projects that might damage the plant or its habitat.

“The BLM’s Glenwood Springs field office is very conservation-oriented,” she said. “But there is so much pressure to open up the entire area to gas drilling. An endangered species listing would help them do the job they are trying to do to conserve the plant.”

Contact Heather McGregor: 945-8515, ext. 517

hmcgregor@postindependent.com


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