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Extremely Rare Shrub in California Will Stay on Endangered List

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Indian Knob mountain balm | Photo: USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has rebuffed an attempt by a conservative organization to reduce protection of an Endangered shrub that survives in only five small populations near the seaside hamlet of Los Osos in San Luis Obispo County.

The Indian Knob mountain balm (Eriodictyon altissimum), a sparse-leaved evergreen shrub in the same botanical family as forget-me-nots, is still in peril of extinction due to residential development, oil drilling, and surface mining, says USFWS. In addition, an exotic grass -- purple veldtgrass -- has been converting the mountain balms chaparral habitat to grasslands, heightening the risk to the shrub.

That's why USFWS is denying a petition by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) asking that the Indian Knob mountain balm be "downlisted" from Endangered to Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The decision, which comes in the form of a 12-month finding on PLF's petition, marks a reversal of sorts for USFWS: the agency had itself recommended the shrub be downlisted in 2009. PLF maintains that "unnecessary" endangered species protection is a threat to property rights, filed a petition in December 2011 asking that USFWS downlist the mountain balm and four other species USFWS had recommended for reduced protection, and remove the Inyo California towhee from Endangered Species Act protection entirely. IN April, PLF sued USFWS to force it to respond to its petition.

As we reported in November, USFWS delisted the towhee in response to the petition and lawsuit.

Since the agency's downlisting recommendation for the mountain balm in 2009, however, the increased risk of habitat destruction from the invasive purple veldtgrass has increased. That's prompting the USFWS to reverse course on downlisting the plant.

Indian Knob mountain balm is what's called an early successional plant: it's short-lived and intolerant of shade, and thus does best in areas from which longer-lived chaparral shrubs have been removed, generally by fire. The plant's seeds are thought to germinate better after fire, though the USFWS admits it could use more information on just how the plant's seeds and fire interact. The shrub also sends up sprouts freely from underground roots, which behavior is often an adaptation to low-intensity fires.

Sadly for the mountain-balm, purple veldtgrass has evolved many of the same fire-adaptive traits, and stands a good chance of out-competing the shrub both before and after fires. With so few mountain balm shrubs all facing increasing competition from the invasive grass, the USFWS decided to keep the shrub on the Endangered list until plans can be drawn up to control the veldtgrass problem.

The agency's decision will become official once it's published in the Federal Record, likely on Wednesday. In the meantime, the four other Endangered species the PLF wants downlisted in California -- the arroyo toad, the Lane Mountain milk-vetch, the Modoc sucker, and the Santa Cruz cypress -- await USFWS findings of their own.

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