ST. GEORGE – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last month that the Geirisch Mallow, a rare desert flower found only in parts of the Arizona Strip, Ariz., and Washington County, Utah, was being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. If approved, an endangered species declaration will likely impact gypsum mining and grazing areas.
The question St. George News asked is: Do those advocating preservation of the flower genuinely care about the flower or are they, rather, opponents of the mines using the flower as a tool?
Interface between plant, gypsum mining and grazing
Recently, the Washington County Commission granted a one-year conditional use permit to Good Earth Minerals for a gypsum mine west of SunRiver St. George. While the mine is not located in an area marked by the FWS as “critical habitat” for the Gierisch Mallow, County Commissioner Alan Gardner said an endangered species ruling may negatively affect the mine in the future.
Gardner said the Good Earth Minerals mine was “OK so far, unless (the government) expands the habitat.”
Described as a tall, wispy, perennial plant with orange flowers, the Gierisch Mallow exists in only 18 known locations in the region – 16 in Arizona and two in Utah – all of which are connected to Gypsum outcrops.
“Gypsum mining is a threat to (the Gierisch Mallow) and its habitat,” officials stated in the endangered species proposal.
The largest population of the plant is located in an area of proposed expansion for the Black Rock Gypsum Mine on the Arizona Strip. Though the mine may not expand for another 3-10 years, officials still mark it as a potential danger to the plant.
Another area, where the plant is present, is currently leased for mining by Georgia-Pacific. No active mining is taking place at the moment, but the lease is valid for another 14 years. Georgia-Pacific could prepare for mining operations at any time.
Grazing is also a concern as the cattle could trample everything underfoot. The proposal states that while the cattle may not typically feed on the plant, the possibility remains. Other factors potentially threatening the plant include illegal use of off-highway vehicles, target shooting, trash dumping and invasive species like cheat grass and red brome.
If the Gierisch Mallow is classified as an endangered species, 12,822 acres in Washington County and Mohave County, Ariz., will be designated as critical habitat for the plant. Both the Black Rock expansion and Georgia-Pacific gypsum mine are located in the proposed areas. If additional populations of the Gierisch Mallow are discovered, the land surrounding them could also be designated as critical habitat in the future.
“It’s a big concern to us,” Gardner said; whether or not the endangered species proposal goes through “depends on the outcome of the (presidential) election.”
He said he didn’t see the government paying much attention to any public input against the proposal. Gardner cited the 20-year moratorium placed on uranium mining in the Arizona Strip earlier this year as an example of the government appeasing environmental activists over listening to the public.
The Gierisch Mallow is one of 251 plants and animals being considered for threatened or endangered status, Gardner said, due to a court settlement between environmental groups and the FWS in 2011. Among the 251 candidate-species, 10 exist in Utah.
“They hijacked the Endangered Species Act,” Gardner said, and compared the proposal and others like it to a federal land-grab prompted by environmentalists-backed litigation. The public was never involved, he said.
Wild Earth Guardians, the group that settled a series of lawsuits with the FWS in 2011, doesn’t see it that way.
From the other side of the fence, species preservation
“We aren’t hijacking the Endangered Species Act,” said Taylor Jones, an endangered species advocate with Wild Earth Guardians. “We asked the federal government to follow their own laws.”
The FWS is supposed to look at endangered species petitions within a certain amount of time, Jones said, but the agency was dragging its feet. “Some candidates have been on the list for 30 years,” she said.
The Guardians launched a series of lawsuits against the FWS, which were settled in 2011. The settlement declared that federal officials must review nearly 700 species petitions and make a final decision on 251 particular species by Sept. 30, 2016. A reason given for the FWS “dragging its feet” was because of a backlog of petitions and not enough manpower to devote time to reviewing them all.
The Guardians alone had submitted over 700 petitions, as well as numerous court petitions. For its part, the group is not allowed to file any new lawsuits and is limited as an organization to 10 species-petitions per year until after 2016.
The Guaridans would not have filed so many petitions and lawsuits if “the federal government was doing its job,” Jones said.
The Gierisch Mallow, which was not recognized as a “unique and independent species” until 2002, was included in the settlement.
However, not everyone is a species advocate, or an environmentalist, so the question was asked – why should people care about the protecting of the desert plant?
“We have an ethical duty and responsibility to preserve species,” Jones said. “Humans are the cause of the vast majority of extinctions.”
As the Gierisch Mallow was only just discovered and grew in such a limited area, it warranted protection, Jones said. She wondered how many species had gone undiscovered, only to go extinct without notice.“We’re trying to save the remnants that are left,” she said.
Aside from the Gierisch Mallow, the Wild Earth Guardians are also involved in campaigns in Utah related to the Gila monster and prairie dog.
The public can still act
Whether members of the public are for or against the Gierisch Mallow being listed under the Endangered Species Act, their objections or suggestions can still be sent to the FWS for review and consideration.
Written comments and information concerning the proposal can be submitted by one of the following methods:
- Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. [FWS-R2-ES-2012-0049].
- The public may also mail comments to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: [FWS-R2-ES-2012-0049]; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM; Arlington, VA 22203.
- Comments must be received on or before Oct.16, 2012. The FWS will post all comments on http://www.regulations.gov. This generally means the agency will post any personal information provided through the process. The FWS does not accept email or faxes.
- Requests for public hearings must be received within 45 days, in this case: on or before Oct. 1, 2012.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2012, all rights reserved.