June 8, 2023

Rare paintbrush flower found in Hidalgo County may be classified as endangered

Daniela Roth

A paintbrush flower found in a single location on the border of Hidalgo County, New Mexico and the state of Chihuahua in Mexico could soon be listed as endangered.

The swale paintbrush’s range has decreased due to climate change and grazing and, on Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice in the Federal Register indicating plans to list it as endangered and requesting public comments.

“This is great news for these graceful, stately plants and for everyone who cares about the natural world,” Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. “The Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of so many other plant and animal species. In this instance, the law will help save a unique flower that’s part of what makes the Southwest not only botanically interesting but also beautiful.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has pushed to get the paintbrush listed.

The swale paintbrush is also known as the glowing Indian paintbrush or the ornate paintbrush. Unlike the paintbrush most people think about when they picture paintbrush flowers, this one has pale yellow petals.

According to the notice published Wednesday, there is only one known place where the swale paintbrush occurs: the Gray Ranch site, located on the Diamond A Ranch, in the Animas Valley of Hidalgo County. It has not been found in Mexico since 1985. Surveys of suitable habitat in Hidalgo County have not identified other locations other than the Gray Ranch site. There are about a dozen sites where swale paintbrush have been found in the past but have not been found in recent years.

A 2020 report found between one and 15 of the plants at five sites in Hidalgo County, but plants have not been found outside of the Gray Ranch site since 2021.

Because it is so rare, not much is known about the habitat requirements. It is generally found in seasonally wet grasslands.

In addition to climate change and grazing, the flower faces competition from invasive species and is also impacted by altered fire regimes and hydrological conditions. These altered hydrological conditions include diversions that create artificial drought conditions in the plant’s native range.

At the Gray Ranch site, people have avoided spraying herbicides near the paintbrush and, in recent years, grazing in the paintbrush habitat has been avoided. The Fish and Wildlife Service believes that the population of swale paintbrush at the Gray Ranch site has moderate to high resiliency, but because it is only found in that one location it is at increased risk of being completely destroyed.

The Animas Foundation manages the Gray Ranch site in a manner that the Fish and Wildlife Service describes as being managed for livestock production in an ecologically responsible manner. The Nature Conservancy formerly owned the site and retains a conservation easement that prevents development.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with the Animas Foundation, the state and the Albuquerque BioPark to collect seeds and store them off site.