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Advisory approach for protecting vernal pools suggested

Uncle Sam won't be coming down with a regulatory heavy hand to protect the imperiled vernal pool fairy shrimp and two rare plant populations in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is calling for a nonregulatory, advisory approach that involves working with local property owners and organizations to fine-tune a 2006 recovery plan for the listed species.

The final refinements to the plan were released Friday.

"We're working in partnership with a variety of local organizations to restore habitat and give these species a real chance of recovery," Paul Henson, state supervisor for the agency's regional office in Portland, said in a prepared statement.

"With our local partnerships, we are hopeful the species will make a comeback," he added.

If the recommended recovery actions are fully implemented and successful, the species could be removed from the Endangered Species Act list by 2032, officials predicted.

"This is a good next step," observed Darren Borgias, program director for The Nature Conservancy in southwest Oregon, in an interview with the Mail Tribune on Saturday.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service consulted widely on this and brought in the best available science," he added. "This conservation plan provides a really solid foundation with an emphasis on cooperative action."

The plan provides avenues for land-use agencies, communities, private property owners and others to work together, he said.

"It creates a better base for cooperation," he said. "This is proactive."

The three species listed include the threatened vernal pool fairy shrimp in the Agate Desert in Jackson County and the endangered large-flowered woolly meadowfoam, also found only in the Agate Desert. The other endangered species on the list is Cook's lomatium, also known as Cook's desert parsley, native to the Agate Desert and found in the French Flat area of the Illinois Valley in Josephine County.

Neither plant is found anywhere else in the world. Both plant species are indigenous to relatively undisturbed vernal pool-mounded prairie habitats.

The recovery plan also protects seven other rare species in the region. They include Austin's popcorn flower, dwarf woolly meadowfoam, Greene's popcorn flower, Henderson's bentgrass, slender meadowfoam, winged water-starwort and the Agate Desert water flea. The latter is an aquatic invertebrate species a mere six-hundredths of an inch long.

Fewer than 20 percent of the vernal pools that once existed in the Agate Desert remain, while much of the wet meadow habitat has been lost, according to the agency.

In 2010, following a court settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the agency announced that nearly 10,000 acres of critical habitat was being designated for the large-flowered woolly meadowfoam and Cook's desert parsley.

The critical habitat designation includes 5,923 acres in Jackson County and 4,006 acres in Josephine County.

About 6,897 acres, or 69 percent, of the total designation is private land, while the remainder is federal, state, county or city land.

Some 4,850 acres in Jackson County was designated critical habitat for the vernal pool fairy shrimp in 2003. That land generally overlaps the acreage declared critical habitat for the plants.

Both the center and the agency say the rare plants are threatened by urban sprawl, off-road vehicle use, invasive non-native plants, mining, grazing and destruction of wetlands.

The state of Oregon already lists both plant species as endangered, but state law protects plants only on publicly owned lands.

In addition to working with private property owners on the plan, the agency has worked with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy and the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.

More information about the plan is available on the agency's website at www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/FieldOffices/Roseburg

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.