13 rare species undergoing review

Experts are determining what threats may exist

Published: Monday, Sept. 14 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Frisco buckwheat is found on limestone outcrops in Beaver County.

james Reveal

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Don't yank that Cisco milkvetch or disturb the Hamlin Valley pyrg — you're messing with a potentially threatened or endangered species.

Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Utah are conducting a review of 13 types of plants, mollusks and one fish, assessing potential threats to see if "listing" may someday be warranted.

Although a local botanist says it's a sure bet most people in Utah don't even know if they've stumbled across a Gibbens' beardtongue, it's critical to take a look at the flower, its habitat and determine what threats may exist.

"Some of them we don't have a lot of information on or they are not very widespread," said Larry Crist, field supervisor with the Salt Lake office of the wildlife service. "We need to take a look at them and evaluate them for distribution and abundance."

The agency will begin a "status review" of each species and make a determination if listing as threatened or endangered is warranted, not warranted or warranted but precluded.

"It in no way means they are going to candidate status," said Larry England, a botanist with the agency. "This just means we are taking a closer look."

All told, 29 species in more than 20 states are undergoing the review, which is in response to a 2007 petition by WildEarth Guardians, an environmental watchdog organization. Initially, the group sought protections for more than 200 species of plants and animals, a list that was winnowed to 29, of which about half are found in Utah.

England said some of the species under review landed on the list because of highly unique and rare habitat.

The Frisco buckwheat, Ostler's pepperplant and Frisco clover, for example, only grow in the San Francisco Mountains in Beaver County.

"They occur in these mineralized soils that a hundred years ago were actively mined for silver and gold," England said. "They are a rare unique part of our botanical heritage and occur nowhere else in the world."

Flowers' penstemon grow in the Uintah Basin in a localized area, while Gibbens' beardtongue, a showy flower in the snapdragon family, take root on the boundary of Uintah and Duchesne counties.

"The concerns are energy development and its limited habitat," England said.

Limited habitat is also true for the Hamlin Valley pyrg, the longitudinal gland pyrg and the sub-globose pyrg, all members of the mollusk family endemic to springs in the western desert of Utah.

"That's the only place they hang out, a very limited area," he said. "A big concern is the exploitation of water resources out there."

The northern leatherside chub, a silvery minnow, has the same geographic challenges, only found in rivers and streams of the southeastern portion of the Bonneville Basin.

In the review, a number of factors are taken into consideration, England said, including threat to habitat, commercial or recreational exploitation of the species directly, disease or predation problems and if there is a lack of regulatory mechanisms in place that could protect the species.

Even though England concedes there are probably very few people who have heard of any of the species — no pictures could be found online of the pyrgs, for example — it is important to protect them if it is deemed warranted.

"Man is a tinkerer. The first rule of intelligent tinkering is that we don't throw away any of the pieces. As we manipulate our environment, it would be well to have full representation of what our natural world is," he said.

Tony Frates of the Utah Native Plant Society said the review is the first time plant species in Utah have been looked at in a long time.

"Plants just don't get that much attention," said Frates, who coordinates the group's rare plant guide. Utah, in fact, has one of the highest number of listed plant species in the country (with 24) outpacing most of its neighbors because of the state's wide-ranging topography.

"There is an incredible wealth of biodiversity in Utah. … The bottom line is that we have barely scratched the bucket of things we should be looking at."

While a possible listing of a plant species as threatened or endangered may cause alarm for private landowners, Frates said the worry is not warranted.

"Unlike animals, plants have no rights on private lands. This should not cause angst for any private landowner and actually, landowners can get incentives. These are not project stoppers."

Although uncommon and obscure in some cases, England and Frates said it's important to take steps to minimize harm to the plants, the mollusks and the chub.

"Plants are indicators of the ecosystem," Frates said. "These things are sort of a tapestry of life without which our world would be incredibly less inhabitable. Who knows what secrets are locked in these species?"

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

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