Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.  — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take a closer look at two rare plants found only in northwestern New Mexico to see if they warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act as environmentalists push to stop oil and gas development in the region.

The agency's decision to review the Aztec gilia and Clover's cactus came last week, after being petitioned by environmentalists nearly a year ago. Environmentalists point to the fishhook-spined cactus and the flowering herb as more reasons development should be limited in the San Juan Basin. They say federal land managers aren’t doing enough to preserve the plants.

“The Bureau of Land Management has been rubber stamping fracking in this region for decades, running roughshod over the greater Chaco landscape and communities,” Rebecca Sobel with the group WildEarth Guardians said in a statement. “If unfettered fracking is not reined in, the health of the landscape and these endemic species remains in grave peril.”

The fight over drilling in the San Juan Basin has spanned multiple presidential administrations and both sides of the political aisle. Environmental groups began by raising concerns about the potential for increased pollution across the region and some Native American tribes joined the fight, calling for a permanent moratorium that would prohibit development in more areas beyond the boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Legislation that would establish a buffer on federal land surrounding the park is pending in Congress. Groups also have been pressuring Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former New Mexico congresswoman and the first Native American to head a cabinet department, to take executive action.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland listens to tribal leaders during a round-table discussion at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. The visit marked Haaland's first to her home state after being confirmed as head of the federal agency, making her the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

The cactus and the herb mark the latest rallying cry.

In their petitions, environmentalists cited public records that show disagreement within the Bureau of Land Management and failures by oil and gas companies to comply with conditions of their permits when it came to dealing with the plants. They also cited poor record-keeping related to efforts to transplant Clover’s cactus and their survival rates.

The cactus is found only in Rio Arriba, Sandoval and San Juan counties in grasslands and among desert shrubs. The petition states that the effects of oil and gas development are mostly associated with the creation of well pads and the networks of pipelines and roads that connect them.

Other threats include horse and cattle grazing, illegal harvesting, seed collection, off-road vehicle use and climate change.

Predation by rabbits, moths and beetles also have contributed to the plants' demise.

Environmentalists say the Aztec gilia population has declined steeply since 1995. The perennial, which has pink tubular flowers, is found only in San Juan County in a limited area.

While the species are considered “sensitive" by state and federal managers, environmentalists argue that regulations aimed at conserving such species in land use plans isn't the same as providing protections for those species. They also note that classification as endangered under state law only prohibits unauthorized collection and transport of the species but doesn't protect them from destruction within their natural habitats.

Environmentalists are asking that critical habitat be set aside for both the herb and the cactus if designated as threatened or endangered. Federal biologists have a year to conduct the review.

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