Federal protection weighed for plant in gypsum prospecting area | Montana News

By NICOLE POLLACK, Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) – In a scrubby hollow at the northern end of Bighorn Basin, a mining venture could be thwarted by a rare plant with an amusing name.

The Pryor Desert Subbasin straddles the boundary between Carbon County, Montana and Big Horn County, Wyoming. Few plants can survive on its sun-scorched limestone outcrops. But the roughly 20 square miles of hostile grassland are the only place to find the yellow flowers and spoon-shaped foliage of the thick-leaved bladder.

It is also a promising source of gypsum, a mineral used to make fertilizers, cement, paper and plaster. Mexican building materials company Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua wants to do exploratory drilling on the Montana side of this particular subbasin — in the middle of the thickleaf pod’s largest subpopulation.

Carbon County, Montana has no gypsum mines. There’s only one in Big Horn County. Owned by papermaker Georgia-Pacific, it is located in Lovell, southeast of the plant’s habitat, reports the Casper Star-Tribune.

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“Before now, the species was found in this small area of ​​Montana that hadn’t had much development, especially mining and all-terrain vehicle use, in the past, and now those threats are increasing. “said Kristine Akland, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. The conservation group petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last March to grant the thick-leaved bladderwracker federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.

“Any further mining exploration or gypsum extraction,” the petition reads, “will leave the thick-leaved pod vulnerable to extinction with little chance of survival.”

The agency said on Monday that the 25-page request presents “substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the requested actions may be warranted,” and that it will conduct a 12-month status review of the species before releasing it. make a recommendation. One of the factors that can qualify a species for federal protections, he said, is “the current or threatened destruction, alteration, or reduction of its habitat or range.”

The thickleaf bladderwrack habitat is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Fish and Wildlife Service clarified in Monday’s advisory that the sub-basin was “recommended for removal of all locatable mineral entries” in 2015, but was never officially removed.

In a draft environmental assessment of the exploratory mining proposal, the BLM noted the presence of the thickleaf pod, designated by the agency as a “sensitive species” at risk, on eight of the 10 exploratory mining claims. of the project.

Roads, trails and drilling platforms would, if possible, be placed in areas unoccupied by the species, according to the assessment. But, the agency added, “some unavoidable impacts on populations through disturbance, introduction of invasive species, and direct mortality on proposed routes and overland movement could occur.”

Listing the plant as endangered or threatened – a first for the thick-leaved pod – could prevent future mining in its prime habitat.

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