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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal court ruled Wednesday that a conservation agreement does not go far enough to protect two rare types of wildflowers that grow only in oil shale formations in Utah and Colorado.
The U.S. District Court in Colorado vacated the decision by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to refrain from adding the White River and Graham's beardtongue populations to protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Instead, attorneys from environmental groups that challenged provisions of a 15-year conservation agreement were directed to sit down by late February with attorneys from the federal government, the state of Utah, Uintah County and other parties to see if the agreement can be modified to their satisfaction.
The court faulted the agreement on one level for failing to have an automatic renewal provision, citing reasoning by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that a "better understanding" of threats and impacts as insufficient.
"Better understanding in the future is laudable, but it is not a substitute for what the Fish & Wildlife Service can predict," Judge William Martinez wrote in his decision. "It does not explain how the conservation agreement's inevitable expiration in 15 years will not threaten the beardtongues."
The conservation agreement was reached after the federal agency proposed adding the two populations of wildflowers to the endangered species list in 2013, extending protections across 76,000 acres of their habitat, including in the Uinta Basin.
A year later, the agency withdrew its proposal based on a conservation agreement reached among parties that included the state of Utah, Uintah County, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, and the oil and gas industry.
Environmental groups such as Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity sued, saying the conservation agreement's provisions did little to protect the rare wildflowers.
The court said there is nothing to preclude the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from relying on an agreement in lieu of a listing, but this particular arrangement contained too many flaws.
As an example, Martinez said it was not immediately clear why the agency settled on 300-foot buffer zones between plant populations and surface disturbances, wondering if the distance selected was based on "horse trade with energy developers."
Martinez said the zones were not sufficiently protective and the agency was wrong to balance the concerns of energy developers against safeguards for the plants.
“This is a tremendous victory for these rare and beautiful wildflowers that are threatened by strip mining and drilling everywhere that they live,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney who filed the legal papers on behalf of the conservation groups.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service must go back to the drawing board and make a decision based not on politics but on science, as the law requires,” Cooley said.
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of Rocky Mountain Wild, Center for Biological Diversity, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Native Plant Society, Grand Canyon Trust, Western Resource Advocates and Western Watersheds Project.