Scientific Name: Penstemon Grahammi
Range: Occurs only in the Uinta Basin of eastern Utah and the very edge of northwestern Colorado
Conservation Status: Candidate species
Remaining Population: Estimated to be only 5,500 – 7,000 plants
Graham’s penstemon occurs only on oil shale soils, targeted for oil shale mining and processing. It is also at risk from traditional oil and gas drilling.
Ledges, barren and striated, loom over the expanse of the Uintah Basin. Gullies and gaps weave between the plateaus. And interrupting the sea of sagebrush, is the brilliant lavender flower, the Penstemon Grahammi—a wildflower, which blooms right on top of the exposed oil shale of Utah’s Uintah Basin. On these flaky outcrops of dry stone and rocky soil little else perseveres.
Commonly named Graham’s Penstemon, this unique native can be identified by large tubular flowers that typically range from lavender to pale violet with bright orange tongues. It is estimated that a mere 5,500 to 7,000 individuals currently exist, all of them within a very small range of land on the Utah- Colorado border—land that has largely been leased for oil development.
Threats Faced By Fossil Fuel Development
Graham’s Penstemon, the beautiful rare flower without quantifiable legal protection since 1975, is threatened by one of the most powerful industries—oil. The flower has the misfortune of being found entirely on oil shale. If oil shale development becomes commercial in eastern Utah, protecting this delicate flower from Shell Oil and others will become increasingly difficult. Almost all the methods being explored to draw oil from stone—the definition of oil shale development— threaten total devastation of the flower. The footprint of this industry on the landscape is massive. Water use for oil shale mining is tremendous—the flowers are alternately at risk of being starved of water or drowned under new reservoirs. And, since oil shale soils are very unstable, even development adjacent to the flowers could bury or uproot them.
Graham’s penstemon is also at risk from traditional oil and gas drilling. Nearly all its known populations are within oil and gas fields with multiple well pads and access roads. Tens of thousands of well permits have been issued in the flower’s habitat and new oil and gas leases continue to be issued here. Oil and gas drilling destroys habitat: individual flowers are trampled, the fragile habitat is permanently changed, invasive weeds and diseases are introduced, and dust and air pollution are increased.
The flower has also faced a political threat. Utah politicians and the oil industry have been heavy advocates of oil shale development. Under the Energy Act of 2007, oil shale research was actively encouraged, and a federal leasing program was enacted. Pressure was so strong that when the FWS proposed the flower for listing in 2006, the Bureau of Land Management formed what they called their “penstemon no-listing team” to devise information and management schemes to derail the listing. This led to a withdrawal of the listing proposal. Earlier this year a federal court finally directed the FWS to throw out this tainted decision to abandon proposed protections for the wildflower. Clearly it is a species that must move off of the candidate list and be placed on the threatened and endangered species list.