Bladderpod hearings scheduled July 11 in Pasco, Kennewick

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially announced hearings for July 11 on the endangered species listings for the Umtanum desert buckwheat and White Bluffs bladderpod.

The desert buckwheat hearing is from 9 a.m. to noon at the Benton County Justice Center, 7122 W. Quinault Place, Building A, Kennewick.

The Bladderpod hearings are from 3 to 5 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. Both meetings are at the TRAC facility, 6600 Burden Blvd., Pasco.

The agency recently reopened the comment period on the plants after public outcry over a lack of notice when it listed them last year. During that time, Fish and Wildlife received only a handful of comments.

Ken Berg, Fish and Wildlife's state manager, will attend the meetings but will not be answering questions like he did at the May 14 hearing.

Spokesman Doug Zimmer explained that federal law requires that the manager make only a statement on the rules of the hearing, with the rest of the time dedicated to getting comments.

"Federal hearings follow a very specific pattern set down in the law," Zimmer said. "There is no question and answer. There is no interplay."

Each speaker will be given three minutes to speak, though Zimmer said that can be adjusted if attendance is not as high as anticipated.

The bladderpod issue has attracted more interest than the desert buckwheat because part of the area deemed critical habitat for the yellow flowering plant is on privately owned farmland. All of the desert buckwheat's proposed critical habitat is on the federally owned Hanford Reach National Monument.

The agency welcomes testimony from landowners of the 419 private acres of proposed critical habitat, Zimmer said. If they say they don't have bladderpod plants on their property, the agency will ask to send a representative to the land.

Fish and Wildlife would consider removing the property from the critical habitat if none of the plants are found there, Zimmer said.

David Manterola, a Franklin County farmer who is a board member with the Washington State Farm Bureau, said a key point he looks to make is showing that the White Bluffs bladderpod isn't in as much danger as Fish and Wildlife officials say. He wants to raise doubts about the agency's stance that the White Bluffs bladderpod grows only near the Columbia River in western Franklin County.

"I'm guessing the White Bluffs bladderpod is the same as another one, it's just never been tested," he said. "I think they are just jumping to conclusions and listing these plants all the time."

The agency is open to scientific testimony stating that the plants are not really endangered, Zimmer said. After the 60-day public comment period ends July 22, Fish and Wildlife will go through the comments to make a decision.

"I've seen listings turn around the other way," he said. "It's pretty rare, because we are good at biology. This is not a done deal."