Science, subpoenas, and the Endangered Species Act

From Yakima Herald:


What’s got clusters of small yellow flowers, slim, grey-green stems and a subpoena from U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings?

If you guessed the White Bluffs Bladderpod, you are correct. This rare plant, a perennial member of the mustard family, believed to be found only along the bluffs above the Columbia River in the Hanford Reach, has become a symbol for Hastings and his allies in Congress for much of what they believe is wrong with the Endangered Species Act.

Why? Well, endangered species decisions are often controversial, because habitat protections can interfere with land-use plans such as logging, farming, or development. But one issue in this case is that farmers in Franklin County hired a scientist to study the DNA of the White Bluffs plant and he determined that it is not a unique sub-species.

They submitted this report as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s public comment process and the agency asked five other scientists to review the data. All five concluded, according to the published report, that the study lacked sufficient data to prove that the bladderpod was not unique. The USFWS ended up listing the species as threatened, based on all of the other information it had reviewed.

But, Hastings believes that the decision to discount the DNA analysis and list the bladderpod was not made in a transparent, science-based way. In March, he requested internal documents concerning the peer review process. He got some, but not all of what he wanted, so the subpoena sent last week seeks those additional documents.

The underlying issue is really how the agency can separate science from politics when it makes listing decisions. Hastings says he wants to see these decisions made on the basis of sound science. But the environmental groups he often criticizes also call for science-based decision making. And the science isn’t always completely in consensus.

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