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Proposed deal on rare wildflowers might avert US listing on Utah, Colorado oil land

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SALT LAKE CITY - Conservationists are condemning a proposed deal between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state and county officials in Utah intended to keep two rare species of desert flowers off the federal list of endangered species.

Environmentalists have been trying for more than 30 years to win Endangered Species Act protection for the Graham's and White River beardtongue species of penstemon, which are known to grow only on oil shale outcroppings in the Uinta Basin.

The Fish and Wildlife Service formally proposed listing of the plants last August. But the agency issued a draft conservation agreement on Monday in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management and others who say the deal would better protect the plants without the economic consequences a listing could have for oil exploration in northeast Utah and northwest Colorado.

Tony Frates of the Utah Native Plant Society says the agreement is intended to protect the industry, not the wildflowers.

"The parties to this conservation plan ... have worked to prevent protection of these incredible plants for many years," Frates said. He said the fact the deal is nullified if the flowers become federally protected "shows that this agreement is not really about conservation."

Graham's beardtongue occupies a horseshoe-shaped band 6 miles wide stretching 80 miles across southern Uintah County. A member of the snapdragon or figwort family, it has pale lavender flowers, pink-striped throats and bright orange staminodes that flower in the spring.

Three years ago, a federal judge in Denver upheld a 2008 challenge from conservation groups seeking to overturn a federal decision that earlier denied protection of the plants. Federal biologists have concluded its chief threats come from habitat loss because of energy development, road construction and off-road vehicle use.

The draft conservation agreement identifies federal and state lands where surface-disturbing activities would be severely limited. Agency officials said it also would provide protections and mitigation strategies on private and other non-federal lands that might not occur under the Endangered Species Act.

The Salt Lake City-based SWCA Environmental Consultants prepared a report on the proposed agreement for the Fish and Widlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Uintah County, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

"The conservation actions outlined here will promote the species' persistence and thereby eliminate the need for listing either species, while protecting the long-term economic sustainability of the area through predictable regulation of land use in Utah and Colorado," the report said.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported the Fish and Wildlife Service also released a draft environmental assessment of its proposal to designate nearly 74,000 acres as critical habitat for the two plants, as well as an economic impact analysis of such a designation.

The economists concluded oil shale and tar sands face so much uncertainty that it's not possible to say how a critical habitat designation would affect the industry. They calculated one oil shale developer, Enefit American Oil, would have to spend up to $130,000 a year protecting penstemon on its current project area on private lands.

Brian Wilkinson, public relations director for Enefit American Oil in Salt Lake City, said in an email to The Associated Press that company officials have been working with the agencies on the project and offered recommendations to the Fish and Wildlife Service but didn't receive a copy of the proposals until Tuesday and had no immediate comment.

Conservationists first sought federal protection for the Graham's beardtongue in 1975 and the White River variety in 1983.

Stephen Bloch of the Southern Wilderness Alliance said the plants' overall habitat faces "an ever-increasing onslaught of conventional oil and gas and unconventional oil-shale development."

"We have every reason to believe that these remarkable native wildflowers will go extinct without the full protection of the Endangered Species Act," he said.

The service recently reopened public comment on the environmental assessment until July 7 and will host a public meeting in Vernal on May 28.

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