Franklin County farmer testifies about bladderpod in Washington, D.C.

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldAugust 1, 2013 

The story of the White Bluffs bladderpod made its way Thursday to the halls of Congress.

Franklin County farmer Kent McMullen testified before the House Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C. The committee's chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, called the hearing to show the effect of closed-door settlements on listing plants and animals for the Endangered Species Act.

"The Obama administration publicly touts that it is the 'most transparent in history,' " Hastings said in his opening statement at the 21/2-hour hearing.

"However, its ESA-related actions -- through executive orders, court settlements with litigious groups and rules to list species -- instead force regulatory actions that shut out Congress, states, local communities, private landowners -- even scientists who may dispute the often sketchy or unverifiable data used for these decisions."

McMullen, chairman of the county's Natural Resources Advisory Committee, testified about the lack of notification Franklin County government and landowners received when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the White Bluffs bladderpod as endangered last year.

The proposal would have declared thousands of acres along the Franklin County side of the Columbia River as critical habitat for the White Bluffs bladderpod. Fish and Wildlife also said the area was the only place the yellow-flowering plant grows.

While most of the proposed critical habitat is on the federally-owned Hanford Reach National Monument, up to 419 acres is on private property, mostly owned by farmers.

Fish and Wildlife agreed to allow another comment period for the White Bluffs bladderpod in May after public outcry and threats of a lawsuit resulted from the lack of notice for last year's comment period. The comment period wrapped up July 22, and Fish and Wildlife is expected to make a final decision on the plant in November.

Farmers are concerned a declaration of critical habitat on or near their land can result in restrictions on irrigation and land use.

Research on the bladderpod's endangered species listing involved inconclusive data and ignored calls from researchers to take more time for study, McMullen said.

"In all cited references, dissenting viewpoints are diminished and supporting viewpoints prevail," McMullen told the committee.

McMullen also called for changes in making research used in endangered species listings more available. He said the research Fish and Wildlife used on the White Bluffs bladderpod cannot be accessed by the public, which violates federal law.

"We hammered home the points we wanted to make," McMullen told the Herald. "What is in question is the response and the difference it will make in reforming the Endangered Species Act."

McMullen discussed in his testimony how local farmers had to pay for their own DNA study on the White Bluffs bladderpod to show it grows in areas outside of Franklin County, making it more common than Fish and Wildlife said.

The study, conducted by a University of Idaho researcher, found that the White Bluffs bladderpod was the same species as bladderpods found in five other Washington counties, as well as Oregon and Idaho. Fish and Wildlife holds the view that the White Bluffs bladderpod actually is a subspecies of the more common Douglas's bladderpod.

Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe defended his agency's 2011 settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity in his testimony, saying the alternative would have been to waste taxpayer money in losing court battles across the country. He denied any illegal collusion with the environmental group.

"There's nothing secret about it," Ashe said. "The settlement agreement was subject to court approval in a public setting and was widely announced to the public and our partners. We fully briefed Congress and shared our work plan and its deadline with the public and our partners."

Ashe called the process of listing 779 new endangered species "the essence of transparency," using the best available science.

"Critics seem to want to have it both ways -- painting the ESA as a failure because of litigation, but insinuating that we've done something wrong when we use the judicial process strategically to get out of court and get to work conserving species," he said.

But Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck, who also attended the D.C. hearing, said he heard stories from the other people who testified -- Damien Schiff, attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., and Rob Roy Ramey II, a Nederland, Colo., scientist -- that show other areas have dealt with endangered species listings attempts similar to the White Bluff bladderpod.

"On the one hand, it's reassuring to know that they didn't single out Franklin County, but also disappointing to know that this goes on in other parts of the country," Peck said.

Peck hopes that the hearing will show that Fish and Wildlife isn't using the most up-to-date technology in determining what species are endangered. He said the agency could use DNA testing for a fraction of what it spends now on endangered species research.

"While no one seemed to take issue with the fact that DNA testing is useful and better than subjective research, there was a little bit of pushback," he said. "It's way better than what we're using today and the law says 'best available science.' "

Farmers didn't realize the bladderpod case would reach so far when it was raised. But McMullen said the process has been productive.

"I had no idea this would transpire at all," he said. "But I relished the opportunity to make our case."

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

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