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The Mountain-Prairie Region


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

November 1, 1999
Mary Jennings (WY) 307-772-2374 x32
Terry Sexson (CO) 303-236-7917 x 429


Thanks to the keen eye of a Bureau of Land Management range conservationist, an endangered plant, the Blowout penstemon, was found in an isolated area of BLM land in central Wyoming. Blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii) is a milky-blue, aromatic, perennial plant restricted to shifting, sparsely vegetated sand dunes. Due to concerns about its long-term survival, the species was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987. For years, blowout penstemon was thought to occur only in the Nebraska Sand Hills.

The plant was first discovered in Wyoming in 1996, during a survey of riparian areas in the sand dune country south of the Ferris Mountains in Carbon County. Uncertain about the identity of the plant, the site was visited annually until July 1999, when the plants were in full bloom and could be positively identified as blowout penstemon. Samples of the plant were collected and sent to experts at the New York Botanical Garden and the University of Nebraska for reference. With this discovery, Wyoming now has its first endangered plant.

"The discovery of the this population will aid in the recovery of the species and the eventual delisting," said Ralph Morgenweck, the Service’s Regional Director of the Mountain-Prairie States. "With a recovery goal of 10 viable populations with 15,000 individuals, finding a population this far from the know occurrence in Nebraska is good news."

A species is deemed to be endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The Endangered Species Act directs Federal agencies to protect and promote the recovery of listed species. Collection of listed plants on Federal lands is unlawful. In addition, proposed Federal projects and actions require review to ensure they will not jeopardize the survival of the species. For private and non-Federal landowners, consultations come into play only in cases where activities involving listed species require Federal funding or permitting. The Endangered Species Act does not prohibit "take" of listed plants on private lands, but landowners must comply with State laws protecting imperiled plants.

Blowout penstemon can be recognized by its large, milky-lavender flowers that smell faintly of vanilla and its blue-green, waxy foliage. Flowering plants have broad-based, clasping leaves that taper abruptly to a narrow tip, while vegetative plants have thin, grass-like leaves. Individual plants produce multiple stems that can survive burial in shifting, wind-blown sand. The plants occur only is sites with little competing vegetation or where strong winds have created depressions in the sand called "blowouts."

Early naturalists in Nebraska reported that blowout penstemon was relatively common. In the past, this species depended on prairie wildlife and free-ranging bison to keep competing plants off the shifting dunes. The removal of fire, leveling of dunes, reduction of grazing, and cultivation of stabilizing cover crops drastically reduced the amount of habitat available for this species. Loss of habitat, coupled with impacts from insect outbreaks, drought, inbreeding, and potential over collection, has caused problems for the plant. Only 3,500-5,000 plants are currently found in Nebraska at about a dozen sites.

The Wyoming population is limited to an area of about 20 acres at on site in northern Carbon County and contains 300-500 plants. The site is on BLM lands managed primarily for grazing. Studies in Nebraska have found that livestock grazing is rarely a threat to blowout penstemon, although the flowering stalks may be eaten occasionally by deer and elk. Grazing could be a management tool to help maintain blowout habitat by reducing sand vegetation.

Blowout penstemon is only the second Wyoming plant to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Ute ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes diluvialis) was listed a threatened in 1992 and discovered in Wyoming in 1993. Two other plants, the Colorado butterfly plant (Gaura neomexicana ssp. coloradensis) and desert yellowhead (Yermo xanthocephalus) have been proposed for listing, but no final decision has been made by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Native plants are important for their ecological, economic and aesthetic values. Plants play an important role in development of crops that resist disease, insects and drought. At least 25 percent of prescription drugs contain ingredients derived from plant compounds, including treatments for cancer, juvenile leukemia, heart disease and malaria, and medicines to assist in organ transplants. Plants are also being used to develop natural pesticides.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management assistance offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.

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