Our Voice: DNA testing of bladderpod should be government's responsibility

July 24, 2013 

The White Bluffs bladderpod has been named a protected species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It grows only on the Hanford Reach and nearby private land in Franklin County.

TIM MCCRACKEN — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

What a difference a day makes in the life of a bladderpod.

Just as the public comment period for a proposed endangered listing for the White Bluffs bladderpod was drawing to a close Monday, a DNA test was presented that cast doubt on the rareness of the yellow-flowering plant.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife could proclaim 419 acres of private land in Franklin County as critical habitat for the White Bluffs bladderpod if it is indeed its only growing grounds.

But farmers did what farmers do when there is a threat to things they hold sacred, particularly land and livelihood. They raised $25,000 to have DNA analyses conducted on the plant to see if it is truly special.

And, according to the results of the tests conducted at the University of Idaho, it is not.

Cort Anderson, a U of I plant DNA expert with a doctorate in biology from Yale, determined there was no genetic difference between samples of bladderpods collected along the White Bluffs and samples taken from five other Washington counties, as well as samples from Oregon and Idaho.

The bladderpods were collected in Franklin County by local agronomist Stuart Turner with permission from U.S. Fish & Wildlife. Of the DNA results, Turner said: "They were 100 percent matches. 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."

While the results are heartening for farmers who feared the plant's potential protective status could prevent them from irrigating, spraying or cultivating their fields, it sure leaves us wondering why Fish & Wildlife officials hadn't had the plant tested before declaring it endangered in the first place.

Did they just take someone's word for it? Is it just that easy?

The farmers paid for an extensive DNA test on the plants, but a more simple test would have run Fish & Wildlife around $5,000. That's a lot less than the estimated $600,000 the agency is spending on the process to name a plant endangered that may not be rare after all.

Fish & Wildlife's state office said it would have to review the report before commenting on it. The report was submitted before the public comment period ended Monday and it will be evaluated along with other testimony.

The yellow bladderpod's plight came up earlier this year when locals learned the endangered listing was to go into effect this summer. Local government officials and farmers decried the lack of public input and notification of the affected landowners. Their efforts resulted in the recent hearings, where at least they could express their concerns.

Nearly 225 people attended the hearings and 30 spoke at the first session, none in support of the plant, which is hardly surprising.

Farmers worry that this is the tip of the iceberg, and more land will be claimed for the plant. Some go so far as to say the White Bluffs bladderpod could bring an end to Columbia Basin irrigation as we know it.

Agriculture is big business in Franklin County, with 900 farms generating $500 million in revenue per year. Losing any acreage is a big deal.

The big question that needed answering was if the plant is truly rare and its habitat endangered.

Of course, tests that show they're common were paid for by folks who are no fans of the bladderpod. But it says a lot that they made an effort to inject some science in the process where Fish & Wildlife had not.

Some distrust of the government and a poor track record on the part of Fish & Wildlife so far in the case of the White Bluffs bladderpod is evident. Taking this new DNA information into account is critical for Fish & Wildlife to be credible, even if the agency needs to replicate the test with its own experts.

Officials from the agency said they were working to build relationships and clear up misunderstandings in the matter.

The biggest misunderstanding of all may have been corrected. It appears the bladderpod found in Franklin County is a common and widespread plant.

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