Saving beardtongues: Environmentalists sue U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

High in the Uinta Basin blooms the purple White River beardtongue and its pink, orange-tongued cousin, Graham’s beardtongue. These two flower varieties survive only in the shale barrens of the Colorado-Utah border. For thirty years, these plants’ habitat has been threatened by shale mining and oil-and-gas drilling. Now, these rare flowers and their oil-rich home are the subject of a legal fight between environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to classify the beardtongues as endangered, protecting them and their 76,000 acre habitat. But in 2014, after heavy lobbying from the industry, the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course in a new conservation agreement to allow strip mining in almost half the area.

“The conservation agreement is a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups, in a release.

Environmental groups filed suit in Denver’s federal court last week. The activists want the beardtongues on the endangered species list and the shale barrens closed to strip mining.

“Although the Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified habitat that was essential to the survival of these wildflowers, the agency rolled over during negotiations and sacrificed more than 40% of this essential habitat, including lands the oil-shale industry plans to strip mine in the next 15 years,” Cooley said.

White River beardtongue, Photo taken by Jessi Brunson, FWS