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2 AGENCIES, U. TEAM UP TO SAVE CLAY PHACELIA FROM EXTINCTION

SHARE 2 AGENCIES, U. TEAM UP TO SAVE CLAY PHACELIA FROM EXTINCTION

The last two clumps of clay phacelia, a mountain wildflower found only in Utah, now have a chance to battle back from the brink of extinction, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expert said Friday.

"It looked like the species might go extinct. It was perilously close," said Larry England, a botanist with the federal agency.But The Nature Conservancy has purchased 70 acres of land in Spanish Fork Canyon, in the Wasatch Mountains about 75 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, to protect the largest of the only two known remaining populations.

"We've found one other small population nearby," also on private land, said England. And the owner of that tract also has allowed botanists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy to cover those plants with "wire cages" to protect them from grazing livestock and wildlife.

Only about two dozen of the clay phacelia, which grows to a height of about one foot and have purplish-blue blossoms, are blooming this year. Which means few seeds for next year.

"But there are a lot more plants, maybe 100 or so," said England. "However, few will grow to flowering size next year" before they die out.

The University of Utah has agreed to help protect the clay phacelia and has transplanted "a couple of dozen" year-old plants in a protected canyon behind the university, hoping they will bloom next year and produce more seeds.

The clay phacelia is similar in appearance to the mountain bluebell. It was believed to be extinct in the middle of the 20th Century, before the flower were "rediscovered" in the central Utah canyon and placed on the endangered species list a decade ago, said England.

Members of the phacelia family of wildflowers are found throughout the western United States and into Mexico. But the clay phacelia "became adapted to a very narrow set of environmental requirements. It's only found in a very unique shale soil and it's adapted to dry conditions," he said.

The biggest worry, England said, was it would be "grazed to extinction."

But, now that the Aagard family, which grazes sheep in Spanish Fork Canyon, has sold the tract for $50,000, the tiny wildflowers have a chance, he said.

The Utah purchase this week "is part of a nationwide effort by The Nature Conservancy to conclude purchases of critical natural areas in commemoration of Earth Day 1990," said Ann Rilling, a spokeswoman for the non-profit environmental group.

Preservation of the 70-acre site "has been a protection goal of The Nature Conservancy for nearly six years," Rilling said. It obtained an option to buy the land 11 months ago and completed the purchase Thursday.

It is the second endangered Utah wildflower the group has rescued from eradication.

Two years ago, The Nature Conservancy purchased a plot of farmland in southwestern Utah containing the world's only known population of autumn buttercups.