Letters From the West

Feds propose listing slickspot peppergrass again, putting ball in Otter’s court

slickspot peppergrass

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has, once again, proposed listing the flowering slickspot peppergrass as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The plant is found only in the sagebrush steppe and only in southwest Idaho.

This proposal is the latest in a legal battle between Western Watersheds Project on one side, which wants the plant listed, and the state of Idaho and Gov. Butch Otter, who don’t want it listed. Western Watersheds sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife for not listing slickspot peppergrass in 2003 and won in 2004. The government had to go back to the drawing board, decided in 2009 to list the plant and Otter sued.

Chief U.S. Magistrate Candy Dale ruled in August 2011 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s process for listing the plant under the Endangered Species Act was flawed. Dale refused to reconsider her ruling the following year.

So once again, Fish and Wildlife started over.

Dale vacated the listing, ruling that that the Service’s definition of “foreseeable future” was vague and necessitating a species-specific definition in order to proceed with the listing. In response, the Service considered the period of time over which threats to the species could reasonably be predicted.

Based on rates of habitat impacts from modified wildfire regime, effects of invasive nonnative plants and other threats, the Service determined that the “foreseeable future” for slickspot peppergrass is at least 50 years, and the plant is likely to become endangered within that timeframe. The Service is therefore proposing threatened status for the plant.

“The Service has addressed the U.S. District Court’s concern about the definition of ‘foreseeable future,’ and we are seeking public comment on our revised definition,” said Dennis Mackey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Acting Idaho State Supervisor. “We look forward to moving beyond litigation to collaborative conservation of Idaho’s rangelands and management of threats that will provide long-term benefit to this and other species such as sage-grouse, as well as Idaho’s economy.”

We’ll see.

Recent surveys showed new slickspot peppergrass sites since the Service’s 2011 proposal to designate critical habitat. Based on this new information, the Service is amending its proposal to designate a total of 61,301 acres of critical habitat in Idaho’s Ada, Elmore, Gem, Owyhee and Payette counties.

The additional proposed critical habitat includes 3,926 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land, 58 acres of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation land, 87 acres of state land and 188 acres of private land.

Scientists have concluded that grazing on public lands is low on the list of threats to the annual flowering plant that grows in wet areas of southwest Idaho’s sagebrush steppe desert. Yet its listing would have more impact on ranchers on public lands than any other group.

Fire and the spread of cheatgrass has done more to place the Lepidium papilliferum on the threatened species list, but these two threats are now more tied to the effects of changing climate. What the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined is that when it’s wet and there are more “slick spots,” the number of plants rise.

When its dry, and the number of slick spots drop, so do the number of plants. Overall, the numbers have declined and the trend suggests that will continue.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Letters from the West