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Walden: Scrutiny needed on species regulation

A federal agency’s proposal to list the White Bluffs bladderpod as a threatened species, despite evidence to the contrary, is an example of how grazing rights are being threatened on public lands, according to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon.

“The American people need to be able to actually see what science and data are being used on these decisions,” he said.

The latest push for reform began after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a revision to a final rule in December 2013 that listed the bladderpod as a threatened species.

That designation meant the yellow flowering plant was vulnerable to extinction and needed special protection. Toward that end, federal officials wanted more than 2,000 acres designated as critical habitat for the bladderpod, including property within the Hanford Reach National Monument, 315 acres of private land and 66 state-owned acres.

The decision involving the plant, said Walden, was made following a closed-door settlement in 2011 between Fish and Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental organization.

He represents the Second Congressional District of Oregon, which encompasses Wasco County and roughly covers two-thirds of the state, including large swatches of agricultural land.

The problem, said Walden, was that Fish and Wildlife based its proposal for listing on a 2006 report about the bladderpod that had never been published nor subjected to a scientific peer review process.

When confronted with DNA data that contradicted the need for listing, the agency solicited five peer reviewers, including the author of the unpublished study.

The evidence used to challenge the listing was collected by University of Idaho DNA expert Cort Anderson on behalf of farmers along the Columbia River in Franklin County, Wash., who were facing property use restrictions.

Anderson’s research determined the White Bluffs bladderpod was genetically the same as other bladderpod plants in the Northwest and not a sub-species, as suggested by Fish and Wildlife findings.

The agency’s peer review group argued that Anderson had used only three bladderpod samples in his research, which was not enough to change their opinion.

Walden said the conflicting information should have triggered an independent scientific analysis of DNA evidence regarding the bladderpod, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, Fish and Wildlife decided to move ahead with the listing, which prompted the House Natural Resources Committee to send the agency a letter demanding information.

The body of elected officials wanted to know what process had been used to select reviewers, how Fish and Wildlife’s decision had been reached and copies of any communications that had taken place between reviewers and agents.

The agency did not respond to that request and a subpoena was issued in March to force the issue. The reports had still not been received as of press time .

However, Fish and Wildlife has scaled back the amount of critical habitat acreage for bladderpod protection to some of the 195,000 acres within the monument.

As a result of that case, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chair of the resources committee, put together a special work group. Those officials came up with four bills to tighten the process for species’ protection and reduce the level of payouts tied to environmental court challenges of federal law.

Hastings, Walden and other GOP leaders contend it is time to get the needed changes in place since Fish and Wildlife is considering 757 new plant and animal species for listing.

Walden said it has been 40 years since the Endangered Species Act became law and it is time to factor in modern-day conservation efforts that are taking place every day at the local and state levels. “I think the way things are being done now is very corrosive to our democracy and it needs to change,” he said.

The Republican-controlled House has been unable to get the Senate, with a Democratic majority, to move its reform bills forward. Walden said it is time for the American people to demand “common sense” in governance and that political pressure might work to get the ball rolling.

On another front to protect agricultural land, he joined the majority of House members in approving the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act. He said the legislation is necessary to stop more agricultural land from being taken out of production.

He said President Barack Obama is using the 1906 Antiquities Act to unilaterally restrict use of federal lands in an “excessive” manner.

The act was intended to be used in emergency situations to protect historical sites and properties of scientific value from an imminent threat. Walden said presidents of both parties have misused this power but Obama, as did former Pres. Bill Clinton, is using it for resource protection that should be considered through regular review channels.

“Land-use decisions should be made in sunshine with full input from affected citizens, like farmers and ranchers,” said Walden. “The president shouldn’t be able to lock up thousands of acres of federal land to all productive uses with just the stroke of his pen and no say from the American people.”

A Rancher's Life is a year-long series by reporter RaeLynn Ricarte and photographer Mark B. Gibson of The Dalles Chronicle. Here are the stories so far:

A Rancher's Life and A 'big picture' outlook started the series January 25, 2014.

All in a Day's Work and Moving cows is just the beginning were published February 12, with Weathering the storms. An audio slideshow, Working cows, was also published in February.

March started with a look at wolves in two parts, Wolf trouble and Wolves on the move. It continues with Springs promise, a look at calves and spring on the ranch.

An editorial, "More defenses needed," wrapped up coverage on this issue.

May started with the story exploring the trouble faced by one ranch, whose story is told in new feature-length movie screened locally in Hood River. One family member currently lives in The Dalles, and in "A Place to call Home" she tells her story.

May also featured multiple stories addressing the issue of public grazing, an issue researched by reporter RaeLynn Ricarte for over four months. The issue is first explored in"Battle rages over grazing rights." Much of this battle has been fought in court, and "Taxpayers foot the bill of resource lawsuits" explores one aspect of this battle. Additional stories followed: Seeking balance on our public lands, A place for cattle, Activist disputes accusation of fee gouging, An embattled system,and Walden: Scrutiny need on species regulation.

The May presentation ended with an editorial expressing the need for public grazing in the western states, Resources to Thrive.

A special section, Farm and Ranch, further broadened and expanded the series in June. it is available as a .pdf document: Farm and Ranch.

As July brings hot dry weather, it's a great time to explore the impact water, and a lack of water, has on the ranch community. Water is a precious commodity in Eastern Oregon. Ditch walker Sam Cobb is in charge of how the water in water stored in Rock Creek Reservoir is distributed in the article "Ditch Walker: Water is gold, here"

In August, the second edition of Farm and Ranch explored the stories and people behind some of the brands in the region.

Water issues were further explored in August, with three-part presentation:

State and federal rules water rules impact ranchers throughout the region. Water dispute boils explores state regulations and how they impact ranch operations. A related story looks at a study launched by ranchers working with OSU to study water issues in arid and semi-arid lands.

Federal proposals to change or clarify what waters are under federal jurisdiction has many agriculturalists worried, and represents yet another clash over water.

Locally, efforts are being made to work collaboratively to improve water quality on 15-mile creek for both fish and farmers. The creek is used for irrigation.

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