July 24, 2013

Taxonomic tug-of-war: the White Bluffs bladderpod

By Brian T. Hodges Senior Attorney

One county in Eastern Washington made headlines this week when it announced that the White Bluffs bladderpod does not exist.  The small, flowering plant is on the fast track to being listed as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  But Franklin County recently received the results of a University of Idaho genetic study which concluded that the White Bluffs bladderpod is no different than the more abundant—and not federally listed—Columbia (a.k.a. Douglas) bladderpod.  The county held a press conference for the big reveal—kind of like an episode of Maury for the environmental law crowd.

The county commissioned the study soon after learning that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was ready to list the White Bluffs bladderpod under the ESA and to designate critical habitat for the plant.  The proposed listing and habitat designation, which includes hundreds of acres of private property, threaten to severely affect farmers in Franklin County.  The county is an important region for irrigated agriculture, and a bladderpod listing could lead to land restrictions, water cutbacks, and a host of other problems.

The Service’s proposal to put the bladderpod on the ESA list must now be reevaluated in light of the new data.  If the Service agrees that the White Bluffs bladderpod is not a separate species, there is a strong case for not listing it.  If the Service disagrees with the new study, there might be a strong case for litigation.

And while the Service grapples with the new genetic data, it must also consider the comment letter that PLF submitted calling into question the legitimacy of the critical habitat designation.  Our comments raise concerns about the Service’s efforts to establish large critical habitat buffers around areas where the bladderpod currently grows.  The buffers are based on the Service’s theory that they will support pollinator insects, which will in turn support the bladderpod.  Yet the Service admits that is does not know much about the interaction between the plant and insects, including which insects may be pollinators, or even if the absence of those unidentified insects would put the bladderpod at risk.

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