Species Spotlight: Conservation Agreement keeps Graham’s and White River beardtongues off ESA threatened list

Graham’s beardtongue and White River beardtongue are perennial penstemon plant species endemic to Uintah County in eastern Utah and Rio Blanco County in western Colorado.

Graham’s beardtongue was listed as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975, while the White River beardtongue was listed as a candidate species in 1983. A candidate species is one that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has sufficient information to propose as threatened or endangered under the ESA, but is precluded by other higher-priority listing activities.

After their original candidate listings both plants went through a cycle of delisting, and subsequent relisting, as candidate species until the FWS in 2013 proposed to list both species as threatened under the ESA.

This installment of Species Spotlight examines the landscape-level conservation agreement between federal and state agencies, counties, and private landowners that led to the withdrawal in 2014 of the proposed rule to list the plants as threatened.


Graham’s beardtongue and the White River beardtongue are found primarily on exposed shale outcrops in the oil rich Green River Formation. Primary threats to them include energy development, livestock grazing, invasive weeds and small population sizes. 

Disagreements over the science used to support the proposed listings, as well as limited surveys of the species’ ranges and the patchwork of land ownership, fostered controversy in 2013. Instead of resulting in the court battles that have often defined conflict resolution in the ESA, officials at the federal, state and county level engaged with private landowners to develop a collaborative approach to prevent the listings.

The result of this conservation planning was the Penstemon Conservation Agreement (Agreement), which established a series of conservation areas for the plants that span nearly 45,000 acres of federal, state and private land.


The Agreement led to the creation of incentives for energy developers and private landowners to voluntarily set aside thousands of acres to benefit the species and engage in best practices to limit surface disturbance on land not set aside.

In an attempt to better understand the threats and habitat needs of the plants, the Agreement also established rangewide surveys, habitat evaluations, species research, and the development of habitat restoration techniques. As a result of the considerable collaborative effort resulting from the Penstemon Conservation Agreement, the FWS in 2014 announced that it would withdraw the proposed rule to list the plants as threatened under the ESA.

Species Spotlight, a case study series examining the challenges and opportunities in species conservation, is part of the Western Governors' Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative, the Chairman's Initiative of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

More in the Species Spotlight series: 

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