Utah’s diverse geography results in many different habitats.
More than 300 rare plant species make their home in Utah, and over two dozen are listed by the Federal government as threatened or endangered. Human activities, including urban and industrial development, coupled with the spread of invasive species, are the main threats to these endangered plants. Does this Spark an idea?
Effect of Microhabitats
Because of its varied topography, geology and climate, ranging from sun-baked alkaline deserts to snow-drenched alpine mountaintops, a broad range of plant species has evolved in Utah. Many of the plants are specially adapted to the microhabitats in which they are found, some of them arid and semi-arid, and will not grow elsewhere, putting them at special risk if their ecological niche is endangered. In addition to their own future, many of the threatened species are critical to the survival of other species in their local environments.
The greatest threat to Utah’s endangered plant species is habitat loss, according to the Utah Native Plant Society. Urban sprawl, industrial development such as mining and other human impacts on the environment put the habitats of native plants at risk. Among the areas with high biological diversity the UNPS cites as being under pressure are the St. George area, affected by residential building, the Uinta Basin, where energy development is occurring, and the foothill and valley environments along the central Wasatch Front, where much of the state’s population is concentrated.
Invasive species that take over habitats, crowding out native species, also pose a risk. Tamarisk, Russian olive and cheatgrass have factored in this and a more recent threat has been posed by the Mrytle or “donkey tail” spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites), a perennial evergreen that flourishes in sunny areas, particularly hot, dry ones with poor soil. The spurge has taken off from extensive residential plantings to spread up mountain canyons. Pesticide use may also threaten native plant species by killing important pollinators like bees.
Species at Risk
According to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, as of late 2010 a total of 25 Utah plants were listed as “endangered” or “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act. Plants on the list comprise a variety of types ranging from the Navajo sedge, a perennial with grass-like leaves that grows between 3,800 to 6,000 feet, to the Barneby reed-mustard, found only in two counties on the Colorado Plateau. Two endangered species of cactus are the San Rafael cactus and the Wright Fishhook cactus. Threatened and endangered flowers include the Maguire primrose and the Autumn buttercup, which grows only in Garfield County in the valley of the Sevier River.