Rare Colorado wildflowers survive 30 years of bureaucratic bumbling

FRISCO — Pity the poor White River beardtongue, growing only in a few scattered clumps on crumbly oil-shale bluffs in Northwest Colorado. If there ever was a safe haven for a plant, you’d think it would be here, where mountain lions roam and bald eagles soar above the White River Basin in one of the most remote corners of the state.

But even in the isolated Piceance Basin, fossil fuel speculators with sunglasses as black as coal are leasing up lands, hoping someday to cash in on the eternal dream of an oil shale boom. If only the engineers could figure out a way to process the oily rock without baking hundreds of acres of earth and swallowing up a river’s worth of water..

If only …

There’s no oil shale development yet where the beardtongues live, but enough buzz among energy companies to raise a biological red flag about the fragile populations. After 30 years of dithering, federal officials will soon finalize a conservation plan for the extremely rare plant that grows west of Meeker, in the Colorado-Utah borderlands. There are only eight patches of White River beardtongue, totaling about 12,000 plants — covering an area about the size of a few golf courses, at most.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released several studies that will determine the fate of the flowers, and the public can weigh in on the conservation effort through July 7.

Unlike mule deer or jackrabbits, beardtongues can’t just up and move if the bulldozers and drilling rigs roll in someday. Long-lived, like many desert organisms, the plants stay rooted in one place for decades or longer. The rosettes of thick leaves blend in with the scrubby gray-green waves of sagebrush. But in summer, the beardtongue sends up 20-inch flower spikes with big, two-lipped pink and purple blossoms, along with prominent fuzzy stamen that gives the flower its name.

The beardtongue is part of the broader penstemon family (Greek for five-stemmed). Penstemon grow all over the world. But our beardtongues, growing in the unique rock of the Green River formation, are special. Some of the flowers appear to be completely dependent on the only known vegetarian wasp species, which feeds only beardtongue pollen and nectar to its offspring. It wouldn’t be surprising if biologists someday find that another species, perhaps a bird, is dependent on that particular wasp, and yet another critter may be dependent on that bird. As with any ecosystem, a disturbance to one species disturbs many species, setting off a ripple effect of unsustainability.

Botanists long have suspected that the beardtongues lead a tenuous existence in the rough uplands of the Piceance Basin. That was clear way back in 1983 when federal biologists first said the White River beardtongue was probably threatened or endangered. The related Graham’s beardtongue, which grows in Colorado’s far western Rio Blanco County and in adjacent Utah, was one of the first plants ever to be considered for endangered or threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Grazing was a problem. But more generally, botanists recognized that an extinction event, or some sort of human impacts, could wipe out a plant that grows only on a few thousand acres of land.

Graham’s beardtongue subsist along a horseshoe-shaped band about 80 miles long and 6 miles wide extending from the extreme southeastern edge of Duchesne County in Utah to the northwestern edge of Rio Blanco County in Colorado. White River beardtongue’s range extends from the vicinity of Willow Creek in Uintah County, Utah to Raven Ridge west of Rangely in Rio Blanco County, Colorado. The bulk of the species’ range is a distance of about 20 miles.

In the early 1980s, when biologists first considered protection for the plants, there was talk of an oil shale boom in hardscrabble Rio Blanco County. Thirty years later, energy companies are still eyeing the land. After all, there’s oil in them thar hills!

Engineers are only a little bit closer than they were 30 years ago to figuring out how to exploit the ancient rocks for their energy potential. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which classifies and protects endangered species, now says that energy development in the region is a foreseeable threat to both species of beardtongue.

The Sisyphean 30-year squabble over the beardtongues illustrates the best and worst of our cluster of environmental laws. Well-intentioned scientists have devoted decades of their professional lives to understanding beardtongue ecology. But that science has at times been ignored and even covered up as it was under the watch of former Vice President and Halliburton exec Dick Cheney, who championed domestic energy development at high environmental costs.

Saving tiny patches of rare plants from extinction is no easy task. In most cases, you can’t just put a fence around them and call it good. Besides, nobody knows exactly how many plants, or patches of plants would qualify as a safe population. Surveys extending back a few decades don’t show any significant up or down trends in populations, said USFWS biologist Tova Spector.

What’s more, nobody knows how many of the plants grew in the region before settlers came to ranch, farm and hunt.

It’s possible the plants have always been rare, sometimes expanding their range, sometimes shrinking in response to decadal climate variations or even changes in local microclimates.

Though useful populations trends are hard to come by, one thing is clear. The best thing humans can do for the beardtongues is to stay out of their way. That could be tough if the oil shale boom materializes, or if traditional and gas drilling activities expand in the area. Some tracts near the beardtongue’s habitat are already leased for fossil fuel exploration, which would siphon river flows, require a web of roads through rugged plateaus that are the beardtongues’ last refuge and bring behemoth earth-moving machinery scraping acres of ground.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans currently on the table aim to protect the plants with various combinations of measures that would include mapping conservation areas on Bureau of Land Management territory in Colorado’s Rio Blanco County and other scattered patches around the region where road-building, drilling and grazing would be banned. A voluntary conservation plan that includes private ranching lands is also up for discussion.

The specifics of the plan would be hammered out after the current round of public input, but the goal is to ensure that any future fossil fuel development on public lands in the region would be required to avoid harming the plants, according to federal officials.

In the meantime, the long menu of conservation options is confusing even to veteran environmental watchdogs who have watched in frustration as eight presidential administrations and generations of Interior Department officials have pondered how best to protect the plants.

“It’s hard to know exactly what they want comment on,” said Utah Native Plant Society’s Tony Frates, who has tracked the fate of the beardtongues for more than 10 years. “We just want them to listed, period.”

Deciphering the government’s intentions with regard to the beardtongues became even more challenging in 2012 when the wildlife service rolled the Graham’s and White River varieties into an even more cumbersome multispecies planning process. Bundling conservation efforts for the two species obscured the fact that the Graham’s beardtongue should have been listed10 years ago when Bush administration appointees to the Interior Department blocked the move. In 2011, a federal judge said federal officials acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when they denied protection for the plants. An investigation by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that BLM policy makers created what they called a “strike team” to prevent listing.

A trail of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows one field biologist contemplated how he could downplay the potential impacts of fossil fuel exploitation on the beardtongues. George Diwachak, an environmental scientist with the BLM, wrote that he was “at a loss in how to address the fact that the entire area may be blanketed by oil and gas proposals.”

In hopes of avoiding yet another legal showdown with conservation groups or the fossil fuel industry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are, among other options, considering a voluntary conservation plan developed with state and local agencies. If adopted, that agreement could forestall more restrictive federal rules and give private landowners more management flexibility. But some conservation advocates worry that the voluntary conservation plan doesn’t have enough teeth.

After the public comment period ends in July, federal officials will decide whether the voluntary conservation plan does enough to address threats from grazing, invasive weeds, climate change, traditional oil and gas drilling and oil shale and tar sands development.

A decision to list the species as threatened or endangered and designate its habitat as critical would set aside protected areas and require extensive environmental reviews to avoid impacts to the plants.

Frates notes that any conservation action would affect only a few hundred square miles — a tiny percentage of the oil-rich Green River geologic formation.

For now, all the options are still on the table, and the beardtongues will just be blooming as biocrats, local land bosses and fossil fuel barons gather for a public comment period in Vernal, Utah on May 28.

Bowing their petaled heads in the wind, the flowers don’t have any say about which policy ultimately will be chosen to protect them, But if beardtongues had voices, you could imagine them reciting the words of Dr. Seuss, the prescient environmentalist who in his book “The Lorax” envisioned a treeless and flowerless world in need of a savior.

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues,” Seuss wrote. “I am the Lorax, and I’ll yell and I’ll shout for the fine things on earth that are on their way out!”

[ Photo of Graham’s penstemon courtesy Susan Meyer/Utah Native Plant Society ]