Plants that grow on Hanford Reach get endangered species protection

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 22, 2013 

Two plants that grow only in the area of the Hanford Reach National Monument gained protection Monday under the Endangered Species Act.

Both the White Bluffs bladder pod and the Umtanum desert buckwheat grow in narrow bands along bluffs above the Columbia River.

Their protection has been in the works since a July 2011 legal agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. It required the federal government to speed up protection decisions for 757 species across the nation. About a year ago Fish and Wildlife proposed protection for the two plant species.

"These plants are part of what makes the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River, so special," said Noah Greenwald, the center's endangered species director, in a statement. "Each of these plants is found on only one spot on Earth, so the Endangered Species Act's powerful protection is crucial to their survival."

As part of the decision, Fish and Wildlife designated 344 acres of protected critical habitat in Benton County for Umtanum desert buckwheat and 2,861 acres of critical habitat in Franklin County for White Bluffs bladderpod, including 17 acres of state land and 419 acres of private land.

It was unclear Monday what effect the listing might have on the private land. Land would be affected if there were federal action to fund, authorize or carry out activities that might jeopardize habitat for the plants in the designated acreage. Then the federal agency would be required to work with Fish and Wildlife to prevent or reduce impacts on the land.

The designation will have little impact on Fish and Wildlife actions because the agency already has been focused on protecting the plants and better understanding their biological processes to help ensure their survival, said Charlie Stenvall, project leader for the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. No changes to management practices are planned.

The two species were discovered in the mid-1990s during a botanical survey of land that had been preserved as a security buffer zone around the Hanford nuclear reservation. The land was designated a national monument in 2000, in part because it had remained relatively undisturbed, protecting its plant and animal diversity.

The Umtanum desert buckwheat grows on the McGee Ranch portion of the monument, which is southwest of the Vernita Bridge on the Columbia River. That area of the monument continues to be managed by the Department of Energy and is closed to the public.

A woody plant that grows in low mats with yellow flowers, it has only been found on a weathered basalt outcrop on the top edges of the steep slopes of the Umtanum Ridge. Some plants have been found that are more than 100 years old. Growth is extremely slow, according to The Nature Conservancy.

The White Bluffs bladderpod grows on the other side of the Columbia River on its namesake bluffs. That portion of the monument is managed by Fish and Wildlife and is open to the public. However, it grows in an area that gets few visitors, Stenvall said.

It has showy yellow flowers that bloom in May, June and July. The number of plants can vary significantly year to year and has ranged from an estimated 9,650 in 2010 to 58,557 in 2011, according to Fish and Wildlife reports.

It appears to be fairly resistant to wildfires, with 76 percent of the population viable in 2008, the year after a large wildfire burned through part of the bladderpod population.

A bigger risk may be landslides along the White Bluffs. The plants grow intermittently in a narrow band that stretches for about 10 miles along the river bluffs, according to a Fish and Wildlife report. About 35 percent of the known range has been moderately to severely affected by landslides.

The Umtanum desert buckwheat population was damaged by trespassing dirt bikers in 1998, but the area has since been fenced to keep off-road vehicles and cows away from the plants. In 2011, researchers counted 5,169 of the plants on the monument.

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