Endangered claim for White Bluffs bladderpod questioned

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldJuly 22, 2013 

The White Bluffs bladderpod doesn't really exist.

That's according to the results of a DNA test, funded largely by area farmers. The results of the test were announced Monday, the last day of a public comment period for the White Bluffs bladderpod's proposed endangered species listing.

About $25,000 was collected to pay for DNA research on the White Bluffs bladderpod at the University of Idaho, Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said Monday. Many area farmers sought to disprove the belief that the yellow flowering plant grows only in an area along the Columbia River in Franklin County.

Farmers fear the declaration of critical habitat for the plant could affect their ability to irrigate or cultivate their fields.

West Richland agronomist Stuart Turner, with permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, collected three bladderpod samples along the White Bluffs, to compare with bladderpod samples taken from five Washington counties, as well as one sample each from Idaho and Oregon.

University of Idaho DNA expert Cort Anderson's research determined there was no genetic deviation between the White Bluffs bladderpod and the other samples -- meaning genetically it is the same as the common Douglas's bladderpod.

Turner said that means the plant is not endangered and that Fish and Wildlife has no legal basis to push forward with its endangered species listing for the bladderpod, which would declare up to 419 acres of private land near the Hanford Reach National Monument in Franklin County as critical habitat.

"They were 100 percent matches," Turner said. "Normally, if you hit about 96 percent, you think they are a very close match. When you hit a 100 percent match, it means they are the same species."

Turner said Anderson worked on DNA studies for Fish and Wildlife in the past.

Peck questioned why Fish and Wildlife wouldn't do its own DNA test. He said the test commissioned at the University of Idaho was an exhaustive one, but Fish and Wildlife could have done a more simple test for around $5,000, a fraction of the more than $600,000 it is spending on the process of listing the White Bluffs bladderpod.

"The federal government has an obligation to get the best available science," Peck said after a news conference at the courthouse. "It's shameful that we had to do Fish and Wildlife's job for them. We certainly hope that, from this experience, they will go forward and do this type of testing elsewhere, so that other communities don't have to go through the same nonsense we've encountered."

Brad Thompson, listing and recovery division manager for Fish and Wildlife's state office, said the agency would need to review the report before commenting on it.

"We are looking forward to receiving all comments from the public, including the genetic analysis that may have been performed by people, so we can make an informed decision," he said.

Kent McMullen, chairman of the Natural Resources Advisory Committee, said he hopes the research will show other communities how to deal with the more than 700 proposed endangered species listings that are the result of a settlement between Fish and Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.

It could even lead to challenges of decades-old endangered species listings.

"There seems to be an incestuous relationship between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the environmental organizations that are bringing the lawsuits," said McMullen, whose group advises county governments on agricultural issues. "It's a follow the money situation."

Turner said he told Fish and Wildlife officials that he hopes the agency will be able to work with DNA researchers in the future.

"Listen, this is a sea change," he recalled telling them. "DNA is a really, really strong tool and you guys can save a lot of money by using this technology."

Attorney Toni Meacham said the report would be submitted electronically to Fish and Wildlife by the 5 p.m. Monday deadline for public comments. She said farmers and Franklin County are not ruling out a lawsuit.

"We have to be prepared to move forward if they ignore this data," she said.

Fish and Wildlife, which reopened the comment period after an outcry last year for a lack of notice for a comment period for the White Bluffs bladderpod listing, is expected to make a decision on the listing in November.

Noah Greenwal, an ecologist in the Center for Biological Diversity's Portland office, said Fish and Wildlife used solid science when protecting the White Bluffs bladderpod.

"The agency can hardly be faulted for not considering a study that hadn't even been conducted yet," he said. "It is also noteworthy that the study has yet to be peer reviewed and is based on a very small sample size. If, however, it does turn out that the new research meets peer review and shows the bladderpod not to be unique, then there is a process for the agency to consider the new information and remove protections."

Richard Nielson, an alfalfa and wheat farmer who owns 15 acres in the proposed critical habitat area, said Fish and Wildlife made mistakes in the process.

"I frankly feel they felt they were dealing with a very unsophisticated populace," he said. "I think we're proving that maybe Goliath came up against the wrong David."

Nielson also said that Fish and Wildlife state Director Ken Berg told him that the agency had performed its own DNA testing when he visited his farm July 10, something Berg denied in an interview with the Herald the next day.

On Monday, Thompson said he wasn't aware of any DNA testing performed by Fish and Wildlife.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; @GeoffFolsom

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