Press Release: Court Declares Fish and Wildlife Service Failed to Protect Rare Utah, Colorado Wildflowers Threatened by Oil Shale Mining

Oct 27th, 2016 Written by Steve Bloch

Finds “Conservation Agreement” Inadequate to Address Threats from Uinta Basin Energy Development

Graham’s beardtongue, photo by Susan Mever

DENVER—A federal district court judge in Colorado ruled yesterday in favor of SUWA and a coalition of conservation groups in their challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to deny Endangered Species Act protection to two imperiled wildflowers that live only on oil shale formations in Utah and Colorado.

Oil shale and tar sands mining and traditional oil and gas drilling threaten 100 percent of known White River beardtongue populations and over 85 percent of the known Graham’s beardtongue populations.

The court rejected the Service’s reliance on a 15-year “conservation agreement” negotiated behind closed doors with pro-industry stakeholders.  In August 2013, the Service proposed to extend Endangered Species Act protection to the wildflowers and nearly 76,000 acres of their essential habitat, recognizing the threat posed by mining and drilling. One year later—after lobbying by industry and its supporters, including the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and Uintah County—the Service reversed course and denied Endangered Species Act protections.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado concluded that the Service could not reasonably rely on the agreement in denying Endangered Species Act protections.

The court faulted the Service for failing to explain why the agreement would not simply leave the beardtongues in the same “precarious state” in 15 years as they were in when FWS proposed listing. The court also found that FWS did not base its decision solely on the best available science, as required by the ESA.

The court vacated the decision not to list and reinstated the proposed rule.

SUWA has played an important role in previous efforts to obtain listing for the Graham’s beardtongue.  In 2002, SUWA and others petitioned FWS to list the Graham’s beardtongue under the ESA.  Pursuant to a settlement agreement reached by the parties, FWS initially proposed listing in 2006.  Later that year, FWS withdrew the proposed rule, citing BLM’s assurances that it would protect the species from energy development.  SUWA, Center for Native Ecosystems (now Rocky Mountain Wild), and the Utah and Colorado Native Plant Societies successfully overturned that decision and obtained a ruling requiring the FWS to make a new listing decision by 2013.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office filed the lawsuit on behalf of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild, Center for Biological Diversity, Utah Native Plant Society, Grand Canyon Trust, Western Resource Advocates, and Western Watersheds Project.  We’re particularly grateful to Earthjustice attorneys Robin Cooley and Chris Eaton for their work on this important case.