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Two Colorado Plants Put Back in Federal Waiting Line

Species First Recognized To Be In Trouble 35 Years Ago

Washington, DC-Dec 15. U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar decided today that two Colorado plants, skiff milkvetch and Schmoll’s milkvetch, warrant protection (listing) under the Endangered Species Act, but he declined actual protection, citing higher priorities. The decision comes in response to a July 2007 petition filed by WildEarth Guardians and a 1975 petition by the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, the plants will receive no federal safeguards until they are actually listed as endangered or threatened.

There are now 255 species of plants and wildlife that are formal “candidates” awaiting federal listing. Many of these species have been on the waiting list for protection for a decade or more, including the two Colorado plants. Outside of Hawaii, Salazar has listed only 4 new U.S. species under the Act since taking office.  At the current pace, it would take a century to get through the backlog of candidate species in the continental U.S.

The path to federal protection for the two plants has been long and winding. They were originally made candidates for ESA listing in 1975; were proposed for listing in 1976; their proposal was withdrawn in 1979, at which time they were reinstated to the candidate list; and both were removed from the candidate list by 1996, when over 2,000 species were dropped from that list.

“These two plants have been waiting for legal protection for 35 years. Their future is closing in, as they could go extinct if they languish without federal shields for much longer,” stated Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians.

The skiff milkvetch and Schmoll’s milkvetch were first recognized as in need of federal safeguards in a bygone era of American history: in 1975, the U.S. was wracked by Watergate, embroiled in Vietnam, and governed by President Gerald Ford; Bill Gates founded Microsoft; the Louisiana Superdome opened; the Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in theatres; and soccer player David Beckham and actress Angelina Jolie were born.

The skiff milkvetch (Astragalus microcymbus) is a perennial wildflower in the sagebrush steppe ecosystem that grows to a foot tall and has white flowers tinged with purple. The microcymbus portion of its name means “small boat,” hence the common name, “skiff,” referring to its boat-shaped fruits. It flowers in mid-May through July. It is considered by scientists to be “critically imperiled” in Colorado, the only state in which it occurs. Its total occupied area is just 83 acres, down from 324 acres previously. It occurs only in Gunnison and Saguache counties on Bureau of Land Management and private lands.

Denver Botanic Gardens’ (DBG) monitoring indicate declines in the species’ populations from 1995-2009. DBG predicted that all populations of the species will fall below 20 individuals and be effectively extinct by 2030. Particularly sharp declines from 1995-2002 may be due to drought, to which the skiff milkvetch is susceptible. Climate change will likely worsen droughts and other perils to the skiff milkvetch. Additional threats recognized in today’s decision include roads and trails; cheatgrass and other non-native plants; development; grazing by livestock and native species; and a lack of legal protections. Development around Gunnison and threats from climate change and cheatgrass are currently considered the gravest concerns for this plant.

Schmoll’s milkvetch (Astragalus schmolliae) is a perennial wildflower that grows to 1-2 feet tall, with creamy white flowers and short hairs covering its leaves and stems. It usually flowers in late April or early May, through mid-June. It requires pollination by insects, including bumblebees and beeflies. It is considered by scientists to be “critically imperiled” in Colorado, the only state in which it occurs. The plant has a total of 4 populations, found on mesa tops in Mesa Verde National Park and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. Threats are cheatgrass proliferation; altered fire regimes; drought and climate change; and a lack of legal protections.

“Native wildflowers are part of Colorado's natural heritage and beauty, part of what makes our state special.  It would take so little to protect these imperiled wildflowers, since they don't occupy large areas,” stated Josh Pollock, Conservation Director for Center for Native Ecosystems. “Why keep them on a long waiting list for more years instead of just protecting them now?”

In his finding, Secretary Salazar determined that the skiff milkvetch may be threatened by four of the five factors used to decide whether a species qualifies for Endangered Species Act protection, although it only needs to qualify under one. The five factors are: A) habitat loss and destruction; B) overutilization; C) disease or predation; D) inadequate legal protections; and E) other factors. Skiff milkvetch qualifies for federal listing under every factor except factor A. Schmoll’s milkvetch qualifies under factors A and D.

For background information, including the 2007 petition which prompted today’s finding, contact Nicole Rosmarino at or 505-699-7404.


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