Flower Controversy Ignites Over Oil Shale Habitat

May 8, 2014

The Graham's beardtoungue is one of two flowers whose future is uncertain.
Credit Utah Geologic Survey / Utah Department of Natural Resources

The Graham's beardtongue and the White River beardtongue are found in Utah in the same place as oil- in the Uintah and Duchesne county oil shale outcroppings.

This week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would postpone deciding whether or not to designate critical habitat for the flowers under the Endangered Species Act. Instead, it released a proposed conservation agreement.

Laura Romin is with the Fish and Wildlife Service, formerly a biologist, now the deputy field supervisor for Utah. She says the agreement allows for some of the species to be retained.

"The basis of the agreement is to establish some conservation areas for each of these species, and in the conservation agreement, we would limit surface disturbance," Romin said. "There's certainly the risk of some of the individual populations disappearing, however we're currently in the process of evaluating the level of threat of energy development to the species as a whole."

Lori Ann Burd, from the Center for Biological Diversity says she doesn’t believe the goal of the agreement is really conservation.

"If they said, 'We have this conservation agreement, and we want to move forward with it because it's the right thing to do,' we'd say great," Burd said.

"But the conservation agreement would go out of effect if these species get listed under the endangered species act, so they're sort of saying, 'Ok, we'll play, we'll give you these conservation measures, but only if you don't give these species the protection that the fish and wildlife service has recognized that they need.'"

Romin says restoration is a large part of the agreement, but it’s not always easy.

"Restoration of plant species, especially in arid environments is not easy, and it may or may not be successful in the long-term, but that's something that the non-federal partners of the conservation agreement are really emphasizing that they would try to do," she said.

Critical habitat is an area that contains the necessary features for a threatened or endangered species to live.

There is an open comment period from now until July 7, and a public hearing on May 28 at the Uintah County Public Library.