The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to give residents more time to comment on the endangered species listing for the White Bluffs bladderpod, a yellow flowering plant that grows only along the banks of the Columbia River in Franklin County, said county commission Chairman Rick Miller.
"They basically backed the process up six months," he said.
Instead of the bladderpod becoming listed as an endangered species Thursday, as was scheduled, the listing now would go into effect in late November. Miller said the draft agreement with Fish and Wildlife still must be approved by the commissioners, who meet today.
The key points of the agreement are a new 60-day comment period, more public meetings on the designation, and notifying the county and 17 landowners around the 419 acres of private property that would be declared critical habitat for the bladderpod through certified letter, Miller said. The county and local farmers felt they didn't get proper notification before a comment period last year.
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"The process will take a renewed look at the listing of critical habitat," he said.
The revised notification is expected to be published in the Federal Registry on Thursday, Miller said.
The agreement with Fish and Wildlife came after a conference call Tuesday involving Miller, county civil attorney Ryan Verhulp and Karen Budd-Falen, a Wyoming lawyer hired by the county to work on the bladderpod case, and Ken Berg, manager of Fish and Wildlife's state office in Lacey, and agency lawyers representing the government.
The endangered species designation, part of a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, also affects Umtanum desert buckwheat, a plant that grows on bluffs on the Benton County side of the Columbia River. But that plant's listing hasn't attracted the same attention because it exclusively grows on Department of Energy property.
Franklin County farmer David Manterola, a state board member with the Washington State Farm Bureau, said he is looking forward to hearing more about the proposed agreement at today's commission meeting, which starts at 9 a.m. at the Franklin County Courthouse.
He said he is hopeful the extended review period will allow for more time to determine if the bladderpod can be protected by saving more of its seeds for future planting, rather than causing possible restrictions on agriculture.
"We could produce seeds and plant as many bladderpods as they want," he said. "This area has got a lot of good seed growers. If they want more bladderpods, we could grow them."
Efforts to reach Fish and Wildlife officials were unsuccessful Tuesday. At a public meeting last week, Berg said the critical habitat designation would still allow farmers in the protected area to grow crops.
Miller said that although the extended review period is being granted, the county could still end up back in the same position in six months, so it is keeping open the option of future legal action.
"Collaboration with Fish and Wildlife on private property issues is our goal," Miller said. "They say we're making a big deal of this, but it is a big deal to the farmers."