BILLINGS, Mont.— The mining company Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua has withdrawn its plan for gypsum mining exploration in southern Montana’s Pryor Desert. The plan would have disturbed Jurassic Period fossils, Crow and Northern Cheyenne archaeological sites, the imperiled greater sage grouse and many sensitive plant species, including the thick-leaf bladderpod.
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 2021 to list the bladderpod as endangered. In April 2022 the Center notified the Service of its intent to sue over the agency’s failure to determine within the required 12-month period whether to list the species as endangered.
“The scrapping of this mine is great news for the thick-leaf bladderpod and the many other wildlife species that call the Pryor Desert home, but we still need federal action,” said Kristine Akland, Northern Rockies attorney at the Center. “It’s time for the Bureau of Land Management to move forward with its own previous recommendation and withdraw this wild area from mineral leasing forever.”
In 2009 the BLM designated 2,606 acres in in the Pryor Desert as an “area of critical environmental concern” to protect the historic, archaeological and cultural values of the Gyp Springs area and the large concentration of sensitive plant species, including the bladderpod, found there. In 2015 the agency recommended that the area be withdrawn from mineral leasing, but under the Trump administration that did not occur.
Peter Lesica, conservation chair of the Montana Native Plant Society, said, “This exploration withdrawal is a positive sign, but thick-leaf bladderpod is still a long way from being out of the dark.”
The thick-leaf bladderpod is found on broad plains dominated by sparse vegetation. It grows in cryptobiotic soil crusts — living soils made of blue-green algae, lichens, mosses, micro fungi and bacteria. This small plant grows to a few inches in size and has tiny yellow flowers that bloom for only a few weeks in June.
Gypsum exploration and mining would damage the bladderpod by removing vegetation and degrading the soil through drilling, excavation, road building and vehicle traffic. The exploration would also increase the threat of introducing invasive plants and incurring damage from off-road vehicles. The area’s cryptobiotic soil is highly sensitive to disturbances. Mining projects could lead to the extinction of the thick-leaf bladderpod.