Imperiled Colorado wildflowers thrown a lifeline |

Imperiled Colorado wildflowers thrown a lifeline

summit daily news
Special to the Daily/Center for Native Ecoystems

The Parachute penstemon, with its tiny, pale pink flowers, is a rare find. The Colorado wildflower, also known as the Parachute beardtongue, only grows on the oil shale outcrops within the Green River Formation in Garfield County, including private and federal lands of the Roan Plateau.

Only about 4,000 individual plants of this species are known to exist.

That the flower has scratched out an existence for itself along the steep slopes of its arid habitat is something of an evolutionary success story.

“We have these very unique, rugged environments in our state, like the Roan Plateau, and there are forms of life that have adapted to live only in these places and nowhere else in the world,” said Josh Pollock of the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems. “This is part of our natural heritage and what makes Colorado special.”

But the Parachute penstemon’s preference for such environs has made its continued existence uncertain. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 82 percent of the known penstemons are on private land owned by a natural gas and oil shale production company; most of the remaining 18 percent occur in one patch of BLM land.

In recent years, the Piceance basin (which includes the Roan Plateau) has experienced a natural gas development boom, and surface exploration and production of below-ground resources are on the rise. The BLM projects that natural gas will continue to be developed in the next 20 years on the plateau. That growth brings many potential hazards to the Parachute penstemon, Fish and Wildlife officials say.

Increased energy exploration involves construction of roads, well pads, evaporation ponds and pipeline corridors. The largest of the plant’s seven known occurrences, Mount Callahan Natural Area, is owned by an energy development company, and the landowner intends to develop up to three natural gas drilling pads in the area.

In response to the penstemon’s uncertain future, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal this week to employ Endangered Species Actions protections for the plant, along with two other Colorado wildflowers – the Pagosa skyrocket and the DeBeque phacelia.

“It relates back to the importance of biological diversity,” said Al Pfister, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grand Junction office.

Pfister said there’s no way to know the exact implications of the loss of a species. But he uses the analogy of rivets on an airplane to conceptualize extinction’s impacts.

“Each one is doing its own job. We may not know what each one is doing, but we do know what they’re doing collectively. How comfortable would we be if we were sitting in that airplane and we saw a mechanic taking just one of those rivets out?” Pfister said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service deems native plants important for their ecological, economic and aesthetic values. Plants play a valuable role in the development of crops that resist disease, insects and drought. At least 25 percent of prescriptions drugs contain ingredients derived from plant compounds, including medicine to treat cancer, heart disease, juvenile leukemia and malaria.

“What the loss of a species means to an individual is that person’s decision. But we feel, and Congress feels, it’s important to do what we can to make sure they don’t go extinct, and extra protection is given to any species listed under the Endangered Species Act,” Pfister said.

The proposal to list the three Colorado flowers under the Endangered Species Act is open to public comment until Aug. 23. The Fish and Wildlife Service will then have until June 23, 2010 to make a final decision. Comments may be submitted at, Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2010-0015.

SDN reporter Julie Sutor

can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or

The Pagosa skyrocket is a rare biennial plant that only grows on shale outcrops in and around Pagosa Springs in Archuleta County. About 78 percent of its suitable habitat is located on private lands that are primed for residential, commercial and agricultural development. Federally managed BLM land comprises a mere 20 acres of the skyrocket’s habitat. Development is a serious threat to the imperiled species, because plants are destroyed along with the seeds in soil that would produce next year’s plants.

Pagosa skyrocket is a biennial plant whose seeds grow into low rosettes of leaves that overwinter and then produce flowering stems the next year. Population numbers fluctuate from year to year, depending on environmental conditions, such as weather or habitat disturbance.

The DeBeque phacelia is a rare, short-lived annual plant that grows in clay soils in Garfield and Mesa counties. The plant’s 25 known occurrences occupy a total 104 acres, and 15 of the occurrences occupy one acre or less. DeBeque phacelia only grows in small patches on uniquely suitable soil. When its life cycle ends in late June or early July, the plants dry up and blow away. The soils dry up to form deep cracks that the seeds fall into.

Seeds can lay dormant for more than five years, waiting for the optimal temperature and moisture for germination. About 78 percent of the occupied habitat for the species and 67 percent of the entire range are on BLM land currently leased for oil and gas drilling.

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