SAN MIGUEL COUNTY – While it’s sage grouse and prairie dogs that most often come up in conversations about endangered species in these parts, this far southwest corner of the state is home to three of 119 Colorado rare plant species considered at significant risk of extinction.
“So many of our imperiled species are plants, and I think so few people are aware that they’re even out there,” said Boulder-based Nature Conservancy Senior Conservation Planner Betsy Neely.
“Plants and their habitats are really in trouble across the state; the time to act is now.”
In fact, while mammals and fish may get the bulk of the attention, over 75 percent of imperiled species in Colorado are actually plants.
“Many of these only occur in Colorado and no place else in the world,” said Neely.
To help make sure they survive despite the state’s rapid population growth and corresponding demands for housing, energy, recreation and transportation putting unprecedented pressure on plants and ecosystems, a partnership of 22 public agencies, private organizations and academic institutions led by the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado National Heritage Program came together in 2007 to form the Colorado Rare Plant Conservation Initiative.
“With our rapid population growth we’re losing habitat for our native flora,” Neely explained.
The goal of the initiative is to conserve the state’s most imperiled plants through collaborative partnerships, and one way it’s doing so is by helping raise consciousness about their plight.
“People just don’t know that we have so many imperiled plant species,” said Neely.
“They don’t know that there are so few protections for them in Colorado, unlike other states.”
The CNHP tracks approximately 520 rare plant species in the state, but only 13 native species among them are listed as threatened or endangered, under the federal Endangered Species Act. Five others are listed as candidate species under consideration for federal ESA protection.
The group hopes to find ways to conserve the state’s at-risk plants with solutions that work for everyone involved – without resorting to highly restrictive federal intervention.
“We want to take a proactive approach,” Neely said. “We want to avoid the need to list more species,” by working with partners on “win-win solutions.”
To that end, the group is working to develop conservation action plans in eight locations across the state including three in southwestern Colorado: the Big Gypsum Valley/Dry Creek Basin, Lone Mesa/Miramonte Reservoir and Gateway.
In early May, they met with public lands managers, local conservation groups and San Miguel County officials to discuss conservation strategies for the Gypsum Valley cat-eye (Cryptantha gypsophila), the cushion bladderpod (Physaria pulvinata) and Lone Mesa snakeweed (Gutierrezia elegans) that occur in, or very near to, San Miguel County.
The Gypsum Valley cat-eye, a member of the borage family discovered in 2004, is a small white flower with a yellow center currently found on only a few public lands locations containing barren gypsum hills in Montrose, San Miguel and Dolores counties. All but one of the locations is located in an area of 150 square miles, and much of the flower’s habitat has been explored or developed for oil and gas production. Inappropriate motorized recreation also places pressure on its continued existence.
Cushion bladderpod, an almost alpine-like member of the mustard family, is a small, low-growing, bright yellow flower partial to Mancos shale, found in an area of about 100 square miles on public lands reaching from the Miramonte Reservoir at the far west end of San Miguel County to Lone Mesa in Dolores County. Like the Gypsum Valley cat-eye, it too was discovered in 2004, and stresses to it include inappropriate grazing, intense recreational use, water development and soil disturbance because the shale on which it grows is used for gravel roads.
Finally, the Lone Mesa snakeweed was identified only in 2008 by Colorado State University botanist and Ridgway resident Peggy Lyon and Colorado Native Plant Society volunteer Al Schneider while the duo were compiling a list of plant species for Lone Mesa State Park.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing,” Lyon said, describing how she “jumped up and down and screamed,” with excitement when the discovery was confirmed.
A member of the sunflower family, its bright yellow flowers are larger and its leaves shorter and broader than other snakeweeds. So far it has been found on Mancos shale outcrops and in thin layers of soil over shale only at Lone Mesa State Park, where its greatest stresses are recreational development and water storage projects.
While endangered plants don’t enjoy the same level of conservation recognition as, say, polar bears or gray wolves, their survival is nonetheless critical.
“Many can be valuable indicators of overall ecosystem health and good stewardship,” Neely explained.
Not to mention potential uses that haven’t yet been discovered, such as for medicine.
“We don’t want to lose these species because they could have valuable benefits for humans.”
“If we lose them we’re losing valuable scientific treasures,” she said.
For more information about the Colorado Rare Plant Conservation Initiative visit conserveonline.org/workspaces/corareplantinitative or contact Betsy Neely at email@example.com or Susan Panjabi at firstname.lastname@example.org.