Endangered species in the high desert of WY

I am excited to be working with the BLM this summer in Wyoming to update a programmatic biological assessment (BA) for the plant species Penstemon haydenii or blowout penstemon (BP).  BP was listed as an endangered species in 1987, and was originally thought to be endemic to Nebraska.  In 1996, my mentor Frank Blomquist, observed the species on sand dunes north of Rawlins, WY in the foothills near Bradley Peak in Carbon County.  However, this was a rediscovery of BP as historic collections were made during the Hayden expedition in 1877 from Casper to Rawlins.

Since its initial discovery in the foothills of Bradley Peak, other populations of BP have been observed in wind-driven environments, such as sand dunes and blowouts in Carbon County, WY.  Total plant numbers at each site fluctuate each year based on physical and biological factors including spring precipitation, vegetation cover and browsing by range animals such as pronghorn antelope and domestic livestock.  These factors make monitoring and surveying life-history traits challenging for biologists charged with the task to delineate protective measures for known populations.  Additionally, since BP habitat is unstable biologists must be vigilant in mapping and surveying wind-driven habitat throughout the state to account for new BP populations that may occur.

Blowout penstemon is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act and as such the BLM is required to write up a BA for the species to assess how BLM management actions could affect known and potential BP habitat.  This BA must then be sent to United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for a “consultation”.  During the consultation FWS will draft a biologic opinion (BO), which is meant to ensure that protective measures and management actions listed in the BA by the BLM are ecologically appropriate and logically rationalized to protect BP habitat.

This is where I fit into the picture.  A final BA draft for BP has yet to be finalized in WY as new concerns have arisen regarding the development of wind farms.  Unfortunately there is a lack of information concerning how wind farms might impact BP habitat both directly and indirectly.  A few studies have shown that wind farms create microclimates altering wind patterns and speed, which could then affect BP habitat through changes in the creation of new sand dunes and/or blowouts.  Further, wind farms could impact BP pollinators such as bees, which could have negative consequences for BP population stability in the long-term.  I will be working with both the BLM and FWS to update the BP assessment to include potential impacts to BP habitat from wind energy development in WY.  This will be a challenging task given the general lack of knowledge concerning wind turbine effects on the surrounding landscape and the rapid pace at which the industry is developing.

Next week I will be working with another CBG intern surveying BP for population counts.  I am very much looking forward to these field days as BP will be the first endangered plant species I have ever seen in person!  I will share this experience in my next blog post, hopefully with positive news (existing population increases, new population occurrences, etc.) and pictures of BP in flower.

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