Once again, FWS lists Idaho plant as threatened

By Stephen Davies

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 2016 - Slickspot peppergrass, a plant that lives on about 60,000 acres of sagebrush-steppe habitat in southwestern Idaho, will once again be considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said not much has changed to improve the species' lot since FWS first listed it as threatened in 2009. Gov. Butch Otter, R-Id., challenged that decision in federal court, and in 2012, a judge threw out the listing after finding that FWS had not properly defined the phrase “foreseeable future” with respect to the threats faced by the plant.

The ESA defines a threatened species as one that is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” But U.S. District Judge Candy Dale said that FWS' definition was “not species-specific” and in fact, made “no reference to the actual species at issue.”

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In its final rule, published in today's Federal Register, FWS said “the foreseeable future is that period of time within which we can reliably predict” whether slickspot peppergrass is likely to become endangered as a result of the effects of wildfire and invasive nonnative plants, and other threats, such as livestock grazing.

Although the service said experts had previously “expressed widely divergent opinions on extinction probabilities over various timeframes,” it nonetheless included a timeframe in the final rule, saying that “with respect to the principal threat factors, the foreseeable future for (slickspot peppergrass) is at least 50 years.”

The main threats to the plant's future existence - larger, longer and more frequent wildfires as well as invasive, non-native plant species - “are further exacerbated by climate change,” FWS said in its listing rule.

Livestock grazing is a “secondary threat,” the service said, but Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group that has sued three times to get the plant on the list, said FWS is underestimating impact of grazing on the plant.

“The primary land use on its public lands habitat is livestock grazing,” WWP said. “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.”

But the Idaho Cattle Association said recently formed Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) are improving response to fires. “RFPAs are volunteer wildland fire fighting organizations developed and comprised of local ranchers,” ICA said in a statement on the listing.

In the past, “initial firefighting efforts were limited based on fire crews availability,” ICA said. But “combined with the state and federal government's wildfire fighting resources, the RFPAs provide the ability to respond to multiple fire starts at any point in time.”

FWS, however, said that while a welcome development, “RFPAs do not address the threat from existing invasive nonnative plant species … and the conservation need for sagebrush-steppe habitat restoration.” FWS added that RFPAs have not been around long enough to show that they are effective in reducing the frequency or extent of wildfire across the plant's range.

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Most of the currently designated RFPAs cover greater sage-grouse habitat, FWS said. Only about one-third of the spots where the plant occurs are located inside any of the designated RFPA boundaries.

The sage-grouse was left off the endangered species list last year after FWS concluded that management plans covering millions of acres throughout the bird's 11-species range wide-ranging would adequately protect sage-grouse habitat.

ICA, however, said that livestock industry efforts to conserve the plant's habitat “have been completely overlooked” and adequate conservation measures are already in place to conserve slickspot peppergrass. “The science behind the decision to list the species is fatally flawed,” ICA said.

In its listing rule, FWS said “livestock use in areas that contain (slickspot peppergrass) has the potential to result in both positive and negative effects on the species, depending on factors such as stocking rate and season of use.”

Nevertheless, FWS still concludes “that livestock will have a negative impact” on the plant, “primarily through mechanical damage to individual plants and slickspot habitats.”

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