The announcement last month that Endangered Species Act protections were forthcoming for the yellow-flowering perennial known as the White Bluffs bladderpod has inspired tall tales of secret agreements, restricted public outreach and draconian restrictions on private property.
The facts, however, make clear that protecting this rare flower and another plant known as the Umtanum desert buckwheat will come at little cost and provide many benefits.
And although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed last week to reopen the public comment period, it’s also clear that all procedures for public input were properly followed and provided abundant opportunity for comment.
Extending the comment period won’t change the carefully considered facts that guided Fish and Wildlife’s decision, one the agency says will have minimal impact on farmers and others.
Perched atop Columbia River bluffs that, until the 1970s, had remained largely intact since the Pleistocene Epoch, both plants face many threats, including off-road vehicles, invasive species and landslides caused by underground seepage from excess irrigation water.
Addressing these threats will benefit the two plants, as well as the many people who use the Hanford Reach National Monument and want it protected from ORVs and preventable landslides. This will not mean the end to farming there, but a shift in practices to reduce landslides. And ORV recreation will continues in less sensitive areas.
Protection for the two plants comes as a result of a settlement agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity, where I direct the endangered species program. That agreement — prompted by years of delay by the government in protecting some of the most endangered species in the country — spelled out legally binding deadlines for the agency to decide whether to protect hundreds of species under the Endangered Species Act.
In a recent letter to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings criticized the settlement deal for being “closed door,” raising “questions regarding the Service’s ESA management priorities,” and ignoring “input from states and local entities that are most affected by the potential ESA listing or critical habitat designation.”
These critiques falter upon close inspection.
In fact, the protection decision came only after years of scientific reviews and multiple comment periods, including one last May that was announced in this newspaper.
The settlement agreement in no way determined the outcome of decisions about whether to protect species, nor did it circumvent or limit public comment procedures. It only required that timely decisions be made to ensure that species don’t go extinct waiting for protection. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, for example, determined in 1999 that the two plants warrant protection. Our settlement agreement simply required the agency to follow through on this protection now nearly 14 years delayed.
Protecting the flower’s habitat and stopping underground seepage causing landslides is a good long-term decision for the White Bluffs bladderpod and the farmers who work the land.
It’s the best way to assure the survival of these plants, which live nowhere else on Earth. During its 40 years, the Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals entrusted to its care. It’s the safety net for species on the verge of extinction and the law responsible for saving animals like bald eagles and grizzly bears.
The White Bluffs bladderpod can now join the list of the Act’s success stories — and it won’t mean an end to farming in Franklin County.
But to move forward, we have to be guided by science, facts and the law.
Noah Greenwald is an ecologist at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Portland office, where he serves as director of the Endangered Species Program. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org