Politically Embattled |Plant Again Protected


     WASHINGTON (CN) – A small Idaho plant, the subject of multiple law suits, has been reaffirmed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act after a legal challenge by ranchers. The legal wrangling over the rare slickspot peppergrass has been ongoing since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed to list the plant as endangered, in 2002, after placing it on the candidate list in 1990.
     The Western Watershed Project (WWP) conservation group and its allies petitioned for the plant’s listing in April 2001. After the Service declined to act, the petitioners field a complaint in November 2001, and as a result, the Service proposed to list the plant as endangered in 2002.
     In 2003, the U.S. Air Force legally challenged the proposed listing, claiming it violated the Information Quality Act. After a re-evaluation, the Service decided to withdraw the proposal in 2004, due to lack of evidence supporting the listing.
     The WWP sued the agency in 2005 to reinstate the proposed listing. After the court reversed the withdrawal and mandated that the matter be reconsidered, the Service again withdrew the proposal in 2007. The WWP sued in 2008, which ultimately resulted in a final listing of the peppergrass as a threatened species in 2009.
     In 2012, the Governor of Idaho, and three cattle ranchers sued the Service over the listing, claiming that the term “foreseeable future” was not adequately defined. The court agreed, vacated the listing and directed the Service to define the time frame within which the plant was likely to become extinct.
     The Service has now defined the term, for this species only, “to mean at least 50 years, the time period in which the currently known threats to the species are likely to cause it to become extinct.”
     “Political meddling from the livestock industry and its friends in the state of Idaho kept this plant from being protected under the ESA. Three times, WWP had to challenge in court the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to protect the plant. And three times, thanks to our attorneys, courts overturned the agency’s failure to protect it,” WWP said in its response to the final rule reinstating the listing, which was published Wednesday.
     The term “slickspot” refers to small wet areas in the arid sagebrush-steppe landscape in southwestern Idaho. The slicks are formed in hollows where the clay soil forms a moisture barrier preventing the water from soaking into the ground.
     “Cattle naturally congregate in the wet spots, trampling the plants and its habitat. This trampling, combined with weed invasions and increased fires, both of which are worsened by cattle grazing, have left the plant in dire straits,” according to the WWP.
     The Service identifies wildfire frequency and extent, invasion of cheatgrass and other non-native invasive plants, habitat fragmentation and development as the major threats to the peppergrass.
     “The livestock industry in Idaho maintains an outsized hoofprint; the new rule protecting the plant fails to consider livestock grazing a significant threat to the species. The Service lists invasive species and wildfires as dominant causes for concern, failing to recognize head-on that livestock grazing and its pervasive negative influence on arid ecosystems increases invasive species infestations and, in turn, fuels the unnatural fire cycles that harm Idaho’s high desert landscape,” the WWP said.
     However, livestock management does get a nod as part of the Service’s plan to conserve the plant. After listing its planned efforts to control wildfires, invasive species and off-highway vehicle use, and to mitigate the negative effects of military activities, the Service does acknowledge the need to “minimize the impact of ground disturbances caused by livestock penetrating and trampling when soils are saturated.”
     Before the court vacated the 2009 listing, the Service also published a proposal to designate critical habitat for the plant, which was suspended due to the ruling. The Service now also plans to finalize the critical habitat designation. It is to be expanded from the original proposal by the addition of over 3,500 acres of mostly public lands for a total of 61,301 acres, according to the 2014 proposed rule.
     “We look forward to moving beyond litigation so we can focus on working with our partners, as we have done with a variety of other species, on collaborative conservation of Idaho’s rangelands” Dennis Mackey, acting state supervisor for the Service’s Idaho Fish and Wildlife Office, said. “Together we can address primary threats to this plant, such as fire and invasive species, so it no longer requires the protections of the ESA.”
     The final rule is effective Sept. 16.

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