Feds Declare 2 Endangered Death Valley National Park Plants Recovered

Eureka Valley evening primrose | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Two plants found only in Death Valley National Park that have been on the Endangered list since 1978 have since recovered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is proposing to remove them from the list.

The Eureka Valley evening primrose and the Eureka dunegrass have been successfully protected, says USFWS, from the main threat that prompted their inclusion on the Endangered Species list 36 years ago: off-road vehicle riders trampling the Eureka Dunes. The plants are found only on those dunes, which have been part of Death Valley National Park since the passage of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994.

Though USFWS says the plants still face threats from climate change and from competition from exotic weeds, especially tumbleweeds, the agency says those threats aren't dire enough to keep the plants on the Endangered list, and is proposing to delist both species.

The proposal, which will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, follows a 2010 petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation that urged USFWS to remove the two species from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). (Both plants only grow in federally designated wilderness within Death Valley National Park, so the likely boon to PLF's conservative constituency in getting the plants delisted would seem purely symbolic.)

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The biggest threat to the Eureka Valley evening primrose (Oenothera avita eurekensis) and the Eureka dune grass (Swallenia alexandrae), disturbance from off-road vehicle use and the associated campsites in the dunes, came to a halt even before the Eureka Valley was added to Death Valley National Park. The Bureau of Land Management declared the dunes and the surrounding area off-limits to off-road vehicles in 1976, in response to the proposed listing of both plants as endangered under ESA. In 1980, the BLM declared the Eureka Dunes area an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, an administrative designation that allows the BLM to better protect the landscape.

Soon after the dunes were transferred from the BLM to the National Park Service in 1994, the whole area was declared a federal wilderness area, permanently keeping vehicles off the dunes. An October 1997 article in Esquire on the new sport sandboarding identified the Eureka Dunes as a choice destination for the sport, raising concerns that boarders would crush plants. The Park Service prohibited the sport on the dunes in 2002.

The Park Service isn't as able to prohibit the spread of tumbleweeds, a.k.a Russian thistle (Salsola). The invasive plant has grown on the dunes since the 1970s, likely brought in by livestock in the north end of the valley. But while Salsola is a serious threat to other native plants throughout the west, the evening-primrose and the dune grass seem to do fine even in the presence of tumbleweeds.

Despite the symbolic victory for the anti-environmental Pacific Legal Foundation, environmental groups are applauding the proposed delisting as well. "These two unique California plants join the long list of species the Endangered Species Act has saved from extinction," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "From the blue whale to Eureka dune grass, this remarkably successful law has prevented the extinction of our country's most vulnerable wild heritage for 40 years now."

The USFWS delisting proposal now launches a 60-day public comment period.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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