updated 12/20/2006 2:06:33 PM ET 2006-12-20T19:06:33

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday withdrew its proposal to list as threatened a wildflower that grows only in areas of Utah and Colorado where oil shale and tar sand exploration are being done.

The decision prompted environmental groups who have fought for the listing of the Graham's penstemon to accuse the FWS and Bureau of Land Management of choosing energy development leases over a threatened species.

"This is a political decision to deny listing to something that needs to be listed due to energy development," said Tony Frates, conservation co-chairman for the Utah Native Plant Society. "It is restricted to a very limited geologic formation ... and the potential for the oil shale development would gravely impact it's ability to survive."

The flower is a member of the snapdragon family and blooms in lavender flowers.

The FWS proposed the flower, also known as the Graham's beardtongue, for listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in January as part of a court ordered settlement. The Center for Native Ecosystems, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the native plant societies of Utah and Colorado and other organizations had petitioned for the flower's protection.

Larry England a botanist with the FWS in Salt Lake City said the proposal was withdrawn Tuesday because the service couldn't show that the threats to the species and its population range were imminent.

"We still have a conservation concern that is ongoing and we will track it in relation to all potential energy development, not just oil shale and tar sands," England said.

Frates said after Tuesday's announcement additional legal action is "extremely likely."

England agreed the wildflower is rare, but said there are no plans for development in its habitat and active development is 5 to 10 miles away from populations in Utah and about 30 miles away in Colorado.

"As interest develops and progresses there is a possibility impacts may become more apparent or more threatening, but at present they are not there," England said.

A statement from the Center for Native Ecosystems criticizes the FWS for relying heavily on comments from the BLM in making its decision. The BLM has been increasingly offering lands in the area of the flower's habitat for oil and gas leases.

"As a sister agency, we're taking them at face value and at their word," England said.

A message left for a BLM spokesman in Utah was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Frates said listing of the species wouldn't stop energy projects in the area, but it would ensure the flower's habitat was considered or avoided.

"It needs the protection now and not later," Frates said.

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