White Bluffs Bladderpod Brouhaha In Southeast Washington

Jun 4, 2013
Originally published on May 31, 2013 7:50 am

An ankle-high plant with a funny name is stirring up controversy in southeast Washington. The federal government is considering whether to list a yellow-flowering plant known as the White Bluffs Bladderpod as a threatened species. Landowners worry the listing could curtail farming.

I’m out on the edge of a ridiculously steep precipice on the Hanford Reach National Monument – it’s a swath of protected federal ground. This spot overlooks old nuclear reactors just across the brimming Columbia River.

Heidi Newsome with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explains the moniker. "It just looks like a bladder or has air within it so it’s inflated.”

Even with the funny name, the work of these four scientists and volunteers is serious. They’re counting the bladderpods with hand-held clickers. Newsome zooms her lens in on two white and speckled butterflies visiting a nearby bloom.

“One thing we’re interested in is what type of pollinators visit the white bluffs bladderpod.”

She says there’s a lot we still don’t know about these plants, in this dwindling shrub steppe ecosystem. This particular bladderpod species clings only to 17 miles of bluff-face right here. That’s it.

It’s threatened possibly because of development, farming irrigation that saturates these historically arid soils, weedy competition and climate change.

“For whatever human reasons we care about them," says Joe Arnett, Washington state’s top plant expert for the Department of Natural Resources. "Because we are so powerful as a species it’s important that we conduct ourselves in a way that we take care of what’s around us, not just ride roughshod over the world.”

Federal Fish and Wildlife managers were scheduled to decide the fate of the bladderpod in late May. But that’s been pushed back because of the outcry from area farmers and politicians. Fish and Wildlife regulators admit they could have done better to notify the property owners.

At a recent public meeting there were tense exchanges between those private landowners and an official in charge of shepherding the listing. Faye Phipps is the farm manager and matriarch of a family that’s cut the same ground into rows for five decades. “You spoke about passing this plant on for generations; I want my farm to be there for generations. We’re working on our third generation now, I have great-grandchildren.”

Phipps’ neighbor, Richard Neilson says he wasn’t using that steep ground anyways. The bladderpod can have it. But he worries farming could get harder here if there are more restrictions on where he can spray or plow. "Every time I turn around there are new rules, new environmental concerns. So actually, it’s real hard to have faith, in the decision process, the rule-making process.”

Federal officials insist that federal protection for the bladderpod and designating critical habitat on private lands wouldn’t curtail most landowner actions. In fact they estimate it would affect only 419 acres of private land, mostly on scrubby bluffs.

A final decision for the bladderpod is expected in six months.

On the Web:

Species profile: White Bluffs bladderpod - US Fish and Wildlife Service 

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