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Rare Santa Barbara Wildflower Endangered, Say Feds

A showy yellow wildflower that's restricted to just nine sites in the Lompoc area may be getting Federal protection as a result of a legal settlement. The Vandenberg monkeyflower, an annual plant that grows in sandy soil among chaparral shrubs, has been proposed for listing as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which proposed listing the monkeyflower on Tuesday, is also proposing that 5,785 acres of land on Burton Mesa be designated as Critical Habitat for the flower.

The proposed listing is part of a 2011 settlement between USFWS and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in which the agency agreed to move on considering 757 species of plants and animals whose cases had been gathering dust.

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Monkeyflowers as a whole are common in California, with close to a hundred described species native to the state. The Vandenberg monkeyflower, Diplacus vandenbergensis, is one of the rarest of those species. California's monkeyflowers in general range from large woody shrubs to ephemeral annual herbs. Taxonomists have traditionally placed the woody species in the genus Diplacus and herbaceous ones in genus Mimulus, though that is changing as we learn more about the evolutionary relationship of the two groups.

The Vandenberg monkeyflower grows on soils mainly made up of sand deposited during the Pleistocene, in "canopy openings" between larger shrubs. Invasive plants pose the greatest threat to the species; by colonizing those canopy openings, plants such as pampas grass, veldt grass, and iceplant can displace the monkeyflower from its habitat.

The plant also faces threats from development, fire, and off-road vehicle use.

The Critical Habitat USFWS is proposing for the monkeyflower includes some private land, but is mainly confined to state and federal land including Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve, and La Purisima Mission State Historic Park. Designation of private land as Critical Habitat doesn't affect landowners unless they seek federal assistance in a project that might adversely affect the species concerned.

"This is great news, because only the full protection of the Endangered Species Act for the monkeyflower and its habitat will make sure this lovely yellow flower isn't lost forever," said CBD conservation biologist Tierra Curry.

Public comment on the listing and the habitat designation must be received by December 30.

For the record: This post has been edited. An earlier version described the Vandenberg monkeyflower as a woody perennial, which it is not.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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