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Save plant, or keep drilling for natural gas?

Conservation groups have sued the federal government to protect a rare plant found only in a small area in the gas fields of northwestern Colorado.
A DeBeque milkvetch plant
A DeBeque milkvetch plantWilliam F. Jennings
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two conservation groups have filed a federal lawsuit to protect a rare plant found only in a small area in the gas fields of northwestern Colorado.

The groups' lawsuit asks the court to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to place the DeBeque milkvetch on the endangered species list.

The wildflower, about a foot tall with white sweet-pea-like flowers, is found only within 30 miles of the town of DeBeque. Erin Robertson, a biologist with the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, said the plant grows on the area's high-desert knolls and at the bottom of the Roan Plateau near Rifle.

The rate of natural gas drilling in the area is on the rise. The Bureau of Land Management is considering a plan to open much of the federal land on the Roan Plateau to energy development.

"The current explosion of oil and gas drilling threatens this Colorado wildflower with extinction," Robertson said.

The Center for Native Ecosystems and the Colorado Native Plant Society are suing because the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't responded to a petition filed in October 2004, Robertson said.

"They sent us a letter saying they received the petition and that's all that they've done," she added.

Chuck Davis, who coordinates endangered species litigation for the agency's regional office in Denver, said the agency had indicated that it wouldn't be able to evaluate the plant for a while because of funding and other priorities.

"We do hope to get to it soon," Davis said. "It's actually on the top our list."

The plant is the subject of another lawsuit by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Center for Native Ecosystems. The DeBeque milkvetch and DeBeque phacelia are among the species in the South Shale Ridge, near DeBeque, that would be harmed by oil and gas drilling, according to the lawsuit.

The groups sued earlier this year after the BLM sold oil and gas leases on about 20,000 acres, or most South Shale Ridge. The Clinton administration said in 1999 that the site, with more than 40 miles of twisting arroyos and multicolored ridges, had wilderness characteristics. That's a step toward recommending that Congress designate it as a federal wilderness area.

Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service told the BLM that drilling in South Shale Ridge "will contribute to the need to list these two" places.

Davis said the BLM has agreed to guidelines to protect the plants, including surveying the land before any drilling occurs.

Environmental groups sued last year to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate habitat critical for the Desert milkvetch, a federally protected plant found only in north-central Utah.