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Science

Two Death Valley plants saved by the Endangered Species Act

Death Valley’s Eureka dune grass
Eureka dune grass is found only in Death Valley National Park.
(Dean Wm. Taylor)

Eureka Dunes, a towering expanse of shifting slopes wedged between weathered mountains in the Mojave Desert, had a reputation as a campground, an off-road vehicle course and a home to a few plant species found no place else on Earth.

In the late 1970s, the dunes earned a reputation as an area where the Eureka Valley evening primrose and Eureka dune grass were listed as federally endangered species to protect them from being driven to extinction by off-road vehicle recreation.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that the plants be removed from the list because their populations have stabilized in a region that became part of Death Valley National Park in 1994.

Environmentalists were cautiously optimistic about the proposal announced in the Federal Register.

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Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “This is an example of what can happen when off-road vehicles are no longer crushing rare desert plant species and habitat under their wheels.”

“Beyond that,” she added, “these two unique California plants join a growing number of vulnerable species saved from extinction by the Endangered Species Act, which has been hard at work for 40 years now.”

The primrose grows to about 2 1/2 feet tall on gentle dune slopes and has white flowers that fade to pink as they mature. In 2013, an estimated 20,000 primroses blossomed in the park, where the population fluctuates with yearly rainfall.

Eureka dune grass grows in clumps that trap sand at their bases, forming mounds or hummocks. More than 8,000 dune grass plants exist on the dunes that rise more than 600 feet above a dry lake bed.

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Both plants remain vulnerable to climate change, seed predation and invasive competitors such as the Russian thistle. However, stress caused by those potential dangers is not expected to rise to the level that either plant would become an endangered species within the foreseeable future, federal biologists said.

Other species recently proposed for delisting include the Modoc sucker and the Oregon chub, which have also benefited from scientific recovery plans and habitat protection.

Louis.Sahagun@latimes.com


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