Highways and Rare Plant Conservation: Research towards a Successful Interface

Focus Area

Wildlife & Ecosystems


Natural Resources






Over 3 years

Research Idea Scope

The Pagosa skyrocket (Ipomopsis polyantha) is a rare plant, endemic to Mancos shale soils, and found only in and around Pagosa Springs in Archuleta County, Colorado.  Plants are between 1 and 2 feet tall, with deeply divided leaves, and have showy white flowers flecked with purple dots.  The plant is a biennial, surviving for one to many years as a rosette before flowering and dying.  The plant is currently known from only three populations (most within 4 square miles) and predominantly on private lands (over 75% of occupied/suitable habitat) with no protection.  Plants not on private lands are found mostly on highway right-of-ways (ROWs).  Highway ROWs constitute 12 percent of occupied/suitable habitat combined, and 50 percent of occupied habitat.  Roadsides are currently less disturbed than adjacent private lands where grazing, landscaping, and building destroy plants and seed banks.  Because of its rarity and the threats posed by the growing residential area, the Pagosa skyrocket is currently listed as a candidate under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA).  The species is expected to be proposed for listing under ESA in 2009.  To conserve Pagosa skyrocket, and to allow for more flexibility and better management of the ROWs, we jointly propose the following research ideas: 1) Effectiveness Monitoring of Avoidance and Minimization Measures – To conserve Pagosa skyrocket, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is in the process of recommending guidelines that will be implemented when activities in ROWs have the potential to adversely affect the plant or its habitat.  Current draft CDOT guidelines for Pagosa skyrocket identify early coordination, avoidance and minimization of disturbances, topsoil stockpiling, transplanting of individuals, underground borings, keeping equipment on roadways, equipment staging out of habitat, limiting access points, application of geotextile fabric where equipment drives, reseeding of disturbed areas with native seed, and limiting herbicide application and mowing.  To date, monitoring for Pagosa skyrocket is limited and no monitoring assessing the effectiveness of the prescribed guidelines is planned or has been initiated.  A monitoring protocol designed specifically to address CDOT management questions and needs, and to assess the effectiveness of the guidelines would be a great benefit.  This monitoring, if coordinated with private landowners, could also assess the status of the species rangewide; which if stable, could lead to a reduction in regulatory constraints. 2) Development of Propagation, Transplanting, and Introduction Protocols – The majority of rare plant transplanting and species introduction programs are unsuccessful.  However, a close relative of Pagosa skyrocket, scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) is widely available in the horticultural industry and is notoriously easy to grow.  A well researched and thoughtful grow-out effort is highly likely to be successful for Pagosa skyrocket.  As a first step, a conservation genetics study will be conducted to guide introduction efforts.  We propose here to research through greenhouse and in situ (on site) studies how best to germinate and grow plants; and to study in the field the best transplanting techniques and develop protocols for these activities.  We also propose to research how best to establish new populations of the species. 3) Public Outreach Coordination, and Identification of Conservation Easements – Residential development within Pagosa skyrocket habitat is inevitable and imminent.  CDOT is already anticipating projects associated with new subdivisions planned in the area.  Because over 75% of the known sites are currently on private land, conservation opportunities are limited by the public’s lack of knowledge of the species and understanding of the funding opportunities available to them for the species’ conservation.  A person living in the local area of Pagosa Springs will be employed part-time through this effort to conduct public outreach efforts, to conduct site visits on private lands, and for local coordination.  This person would inevitably be successful in securing conservation opportunities for Pagosa skyrocket and promoting CDOT’s management and conservation efforts.  We are hopeful this person may also be successful in identifying properties for conservation easements.

Urgency and Payoff

This project will be an excellent demonstration of a successful interface between ROW management and rare plant conservation, arenas generally thought to be at odds. The partnering that will occur as a result of this project will provide an invaluable resource for the future management of ROWs as well as the conservation of the Pagosa skyrocket. Understanding the effectiveness of avoidance and minimization measures will allow for better management of teh Pagosa skyrocket and the lessons we will elarn may be applicable for other rare plant species where ROWs are important for management (e.g. Kremmling milkvetch – Astragalus osterhoutii and many others). Developing protocols for growing, transplanting, and creating populations of Pagosa skyrocket will allow for increased flexibility in management. Public outreach promoting CDOT’s management and Pagosa skyrocket conservation will be a great asset for both. Lastly, conservation easements would greatly enhance the conservation of the species and could provide mitigation for unavoidable impacts to Pagosa skyrocket. We expect that other rare plants in the Pagosa Springs area, found on CDOT ROWs may also benefit from this project.

Suggested By

K. Neet & J. Peterson (CDOT), D. Anderson & P. Lyon (CNHP), E. Mayo and Gina Glenne (USFWS)