SAN FRANCISCO— Environmental groups filed a formal notice today of their intent to sue the Interior Department, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for authorizing activities in the California Desert Conservation Area that are driving desert tortoises and other threatened and endangered species toward extinction.
The California Native Plant Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Desert Survivors, Desert Tortoise Council and Sierra Club say federal agencies approved the West Mojave Route Network Project in 2019 even though it failed to protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats.
“Federal officials have shrugged off their duty to protect these fragile plants and animals from grazing, off-road vehicles and other damage to their homes in these beautiful deserts,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s heartbreaking to see our public lands continue to be torn up and fragmented by illegal roads while these agencies do nothing to stop the destruction. Talk is cheap, and it’s long past time for the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies to step up and protect desert tortoises and the other rare, vulnerable wildlife in California’s deserts.”
The notice says the Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion for the West Mojave Route Network Project was replete with inaccuracies and ignored important scientific information. For example, the five-county plan failed to consider the severe declines in density and abundance of desert tortoise populations or examine how land-management changes could help stop those declines.
“These changes in management could doom critically endangered species,” said Terry Frewin of the Sierra Club. “The BLM’s abdication of legal requirements and Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to use the best available science is setting up a crisis for these species already teetering on the brink of extinction.”
Under the West Mojave plan, the BLM adopted nearly 6,000 miles of dirt roads for off-road vehicle use (approximately one-quarter of the way around the Earth’s circumference). This has led off-roaders to create hundreds of new illegal roads in fragile habitat that is supposed to be protected for desert tortoises. The desert tortoise population has now declined to unsustainable levels in the western Mojave Desert.
“The BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service must formally recognize the rapidly declining status of Agassiz’s desert tortoise in the West Mojave and proactively protect residual populations, not provide for more unrestricted recreational vehicle opportunities in fragile desert tortoise habitats,” said Ed LaRue of the Desert Tortoise Council.
Off-road vehicles and cattle grazing allowed under the West Mojave plan threaten other critically endangered plants and animals, including two rare plants (Lane Mountain milk vetch and triple-ribbed milkvetch), three birds (least Bell’s vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo) and the arroyo toad. The 2019 West Mojave plan also covers the entire California Desert Conservation Area, harming Peninsular bighorn sheep, a critically endangered marsh bird called the Yuma Ridgeway’s rail, and one of the world’s most critically endangered mammals — the endangered Amargosa vole.
“The BLM is the steward of this land, and important habitat for species like the Lane Mountain milk-vetch is being destroyed under its watch,” said Nick Jensen, conservation program director for the California Native Plant Society. “This is an important opportunity for the BLM to stand by the wildlife in its care."
“The BLM and FWS have put threatened desert tortoises in a precarious situation. With 95% of its population lost since congressional establishment of the California Desert Conservation Area in 1976, tortoise populations are so small they can’t sustain themselves, and are on a path to extinction, especially in the West Mojave,” said Jeff Aardahl, senior California representative with Defenders of Wildlife. “Yet BLM approved increased off-road vehicle use and continued livestock grazing, and FWS granted BLM authorization to kill up to eight desert tortoises annually for the next five years due to being crushed by off-highway vehicle use on public lands.”
The groups filing today’s lawsuit are represented by the Stanford Law Clinic and the Center for Biological Diversity.