The public didn't show much support for listing the White Bluffs bladderpod as endangered during two hearings Thursday attended by an estimated 225 people.
None of more than 30 speakers at the first hearing defended listing the yellow-flowering plant, particularly if it means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declaring 419 acres of privately owned land as critical habitat.
Several farmers in the proposed critical habitat area expressed fear that the designation could end up preventing them from irrigating their land or using pesticides.
"These restrictions will eliminate all productive uses of those affected lands," said Tom Davis, government relations director with the Washington State Farm Bureau, adding that Franklin County has 900 farms producing $500 million in annual revenue.
Several speakers asked the Fish and Wildlife officials in attendance to conduct DNA research on the bladderpod. They believe the research could show that the plant actually grows outside of the area around the Columbia River in Franklin County, contrary to the government's expressed view. If it grows elsewhere, that would show that it isn't as rare as first thought.
Others accused Fish and Wildlife of actually conducting DNA research on the bladderpod, but not releasing the information.
While rules of the hearing prevented him from responding directly to speakers, Ken Berg, U.S. Fish and Wildlife's state manager, told the Herald that he didn't know of any DNA research being done on the bladderpod.
"We don't have the resources to do DNA research in every case," he said.
Franklin County farmer David Manterola said listing the bladderpod as endangered could end up costing Fish and Wildlife more than $600,000, while DNA testing would only cost $5,000.
"Why use opinion, when you can use DNA testing and have fact?" Manterola said. "This would eliminate concerns about hidden agendas when listing and make the Department of Fish and Wildlife a lot more trusted in the public eye."
Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said an independent laboratory is conducting its own DNA testing on behalf of the county, and it hopes to have the results in by the July 22 deadline for public comment.
Other speakers questioned data showing irrigation and off-road motorcyle use as threats to the bladderpod. Farmer David Phipps said slope failure occurs naturally at the White Bluffs, with the closest irrigated land 3.8 miles away.
Cliff MacHugh, whose farm employs 800 people, said motorcycle trails -- which are now closed off -- do not deter bladderpod growth.
"The trails that are still there, the bladderpods love," he said.
Berg said the final amount of critical habitat could end up including less than the proposed 419 acres of private land.
He visited two landowners in the proposed critical habitat area Wednesday, he said. In one case, the visit changed what Fish and Wildlife thought was on the land. He hopes to visit more landowners Friday.
"Those landowners really helped themselves by giving us better information," Berg said. "I think that is going to influence our decision ... Those two landowners made information available to us we could not get any other way."
It concerns Fish and Wildlife officials when they hear people don't trust the government, he said.
"That's why we try to get out and work with people one-on-one," Berg said. "We find that when we work with people one on one, we can build partnerships of cooperation and clear up misunderstandings. We have done a lot of good work together and we have reduced uncertainty and increased predictability."
The remainder of the 2,861 acres being considered for critical habitat for the bladderpod is on the federally owned Hanford Reach National Monument.
The Hanford Reach also includes the entire proposed critical habitat for the Umtanum desert buckwheat, another local plant under consideration for an endangered species listing.
A hearing Thursday morning in Kennewick for the Umtanum desert buckwheat drew five people, with only one of them speaking, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Doug Zimmer said.
A final decision on the endangered species listings and critical habitat is expected in November.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom