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U.S. agency deems local lands ‘critical habitat’ for Pagosa skyrocket

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency added a designation to it’s final ruling on three rare Colorado plants. In the final rule, the agency has designated 50,000 acres of critical habitat for three rare Colorado plants, the Parachute beardtongue, DeBeque phacelia and the Pagosa-area-exclusive Pagosa skyrocket, scientific name Ipomopsis polyantha.

It was in 2010 that the Pagosa skyrocket was listed as an endangered species, which has survived since the ice age. The summer blooming plant grows between 30 and 60 centimeters tall and generally has white flowers speckled with purple.

“Currently occupied acres do not adequately provide for the conservation of the species, because of a lack of redundancy,” the rule states. “We consider these units essential for the conservation of the species,” the rule continued.

In order for the Pagosa skyrocket to grow and survive, there must be six physical and biological features in place: 1) Mancos shale soils; 2) elevation from 6,400 to 8,100 feet, with suitable precipitation; 3) cold, dry springs, and winter snow; 4) plant communities comprised of barren shales, open montane grassland understory at the edges of open Ponderosa pine or clearings within the ponderosa pine; 5) good pollinator habitat, including ground and twig nesting areas, connectivity between areas and the availability of other floral resources; and, 6) light to moderate or intermittent disturbances to the soil.

Out of the 50,000 acres, four units totalling 9,641 acres in and around Pagosa Springs have been designated critical habitat. The majority of the land, 6,975 acres, is private land. However, critical habitat designations do not affect activities by private landowners unless there is federal funding or authorization. In the pages of comments published in the final rule, there are several comments suggesting that critical habitat should not be designated on any private lands. The response from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency is that, while there are few protections for plants on private lands, the language of the Endangered Species Act states that the designation must be placed on lands, “on which are found those physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.”

The remaining land ownership is broken down as following: U.S. Forest Service 1,710 acres, Town of Pagosa Springs 599 acres, Archuleta County 115 acres, State Land Board 110 acres, Colorado Department of Transportation 63 acres, Federal Bureau of Land Management 42 acres and Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife 28 acres.

The Pagosa Springs Unit is the largest of the four unities at 6,456 acres. The unit is located at the junction of U.S. 160 and 84, south along U.S. 84, west along County Road 19 and east along Mill Creek Road. This unit has the majority of Pagosa skyrockets.

The rule states that, “While these lands currently have the physical and biological feature essential to the conservation of Ipomopsis polyantha, because of a lack of cohesive management and protections, special management will be required to maintain these features.” The main threat to the flower in this unit is agricultural or urban development.

The Dyke Unit, 1,475 acres, is located at the junction of U.S. 160 and Cat Creek Road near the historic town of Dyke. The main threats to the flower in this unit are highway maintenance, grazing, agricultural use, Bromus inermis encroachment, potential development and a road that was constructed through the skyrocket population.

The Eight Mile Mesa Unit, 1,146 acres, is completely on lands in the Pagosa Ranger District. This unit is located on the west side of U.S. 84 just south of the intersection of U.S. 160 and 84. Threats to this unit include a road running through the site, recreational use, horseback riding, dispersed camping, and hunting and firewood gathering.

The O’Neal Hill Botanical unit is the smallest unit, consisting of only 564 acres of land in the San Juan National Forest. The threats to the species in this unit are road maintenance, low levels of recreation and a utility corridor.

Since much of the critical habitat is on private lands, special management consideration are required. The special management options for the Pagosa skyrocket as presented in the published rule are introducing new Ipomopsis polyantha, establishing permanent conservation easements, developing zoning regulations that could protect the species, establishing conservation agreements on private and Federal lands to identify and reduce threats to the species, eliminating the use of smooth broom and other competitive species in areas already occupied by the flower, promoting and encouraging habitat restoration, developing other regulatory mechanisms to further protect the species, placing roads and utility lines away from the species, minimizing heavy use of habitat by livestock and minimizing habitat fragmentation.

More information is available at www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/plants/3ColoradoPlants/index.html.

lindsey@pagosasun.com

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