Feds kill tamarisk beetle program

A small beetle from Central Asia has been swatted from on high. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially ended biological control of tamarisk and prohibited release of tamarisk leaf beetles. Nonetheless, millions of the beetles are already on the ground and continuing to feed on one of the West’s most notorious weeds.

In 2004, tamarisk leaf beetles were transported to Moab and the Horsethief bench outside of Fruita. The transplants – discovered in Kazakhstan after a decades-long effort – immediately started thriving at the expense of tamarisk, a thirsty non-native shrub that has spread all over the Colorado River Basin. In recent years, the beetles have spread through the region and chewed through many of the invasive trees in their wake. Most recently, the beetles have made their way up the Dolores drainage, along the Mancos River and could already be eating tamarisk in the Animas River drainage. Early this spring, they were also spotted in the Grand Canyon and as far West as Nevada.  

However, the bugs are now feeding illegally. In August last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked permits to move the beetles across state borders and banned release of the beetles in nine Western states. Last week, the agency officially terminated the program.

The orders were the result of a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society, which alleged that the tamarisk leaf beetle is destroying habitat and contributing to the decline of the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. The suit was brought by the Durango-based Western Environmental Law Center.

“It is great news that our lawsuit worked,” said Herb Fibel, of the Maricopa Audobon Society. “Now we count on securing the native plant restoration necessary to save the southwestern willow flycatcher.”

Meanwhile, the lawsuit and the end of the program have done nothing to stop the spread of the beetles already on the ground. Levi Jamison, a Durangoan charged with mapping the beetles’ spread, noted that the beetles are now moving south and eliminating tamarisk in northern Arizona. Scientists expect that it will only be a matter of time before the bugs work their way down the Colorado River, through Arizona and into California.

Despite the end of the program, the Tamarisk Coalition is actively working with government agencies to monitor and manage the beetles’ spread.

Coalition appeals HD Mountains ruling

The fight for the HD Mountains is going into the courtroom. A coalition of conservationists, landowners and recreationists went to court this week to challenge a recent ruling which opened the designated roadless area near Bayfield to dozens of gas wells and 11 new miles of roads.  

“The HD Mountains are the last tiny, little corner of the San Juan Basin not yet drilled for natural gas development,” said Jim Fitzgerald, who farms on 380 acres adjacent to the HD Mountains. “This whole area depends on the HD Mountains watersheds. Drilling could have disastrous effects upon them.”

Opponents of drilling allege that the Forest Service and BLM adopted a drilling plan that was inconsistent with the current San Juan Forest Plan. They go on to charge the agencies with violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to assess the drilling’s true environmental impacts on wildlife and air quality. The case will be argued in front of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The HD Mountains are one of the last remaining low elevation roadless areas in Colorado. In addition, roads and gas pads have been proposed for some of the only old-growth ponderosa pine forests in the HDs.

“The HD Mountains are a main migration corridor for elk and deer, one of the few that remain intact,” said Mike Murphy, a longstanding, local hunting outfitter. “Drilling operations and

roads will unquestionably fragment their habitat, disrupt their migration and scatter the herds.”

Area wildflowers up for protection

Three endangered Southwest Colorado species could be up for protection. After languishing on the federal government’s official waiting list for more than 20 years, three imperiled Colorado wildflowers may be granted endangered species status.

The three flowers, Pagosa skyrocket, Parachute penstemon and DeBeque phacelia, have been candidates for protection since at least 1990. In addition, all three are found in very limited geographic areas on Colorado’s Western Slope and are threatened by industrial development.  

“These three wildflowers are a vital part of Colorado’s natural heritage,” said Josh Pollock, of the Center for Native Ecosystems. “Let’s hope the Fish and Wildlife Service can quickly finalize this proposed designation and get them all the protection they so desperately need.”

Under the Bush administration, listing of new species ground to a near halt with only a total of 62 species listed, compared to 522 under Clinton. However, the Obama administration has not substantially increased the pace of species listings. The administration has only proposed protection for a total of nine species, and the three flowers are the first proposed since July 9 of last year.

Pagosa skyrocket has small pinkish-white flowers that are star-shaped and grows in only two known locations near Pagosa Springs. Both are on outcrops of shale soil within the rights-of-way for state highways.

The Parachute penstemon and DeBeque phacelia both reside in limited areas on Colorado’s Roan Plateau. Oil and gas drilling as well as experimental oil shale development are the primary threats to these wildflowers.

City completes Animas River Trail link

A major missing link has been completed on the Animas River Trail. A quarter mile section and 250-foot pedestrian bridge opened for business on Wednesday and connected a vital stretch on the trail’s southern end.

The opening coincided with Bike to Work Day and created connectivity between the half mile portion of river trail behind the Durango Mall and the 1.2 mile stretch of between the La Plata County Humane Society and River Road. A ribbon-cutting celebration will be scheduled for mid-July.

– Will Sands




In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows