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Cattle v. Wildlife in Mojave

by Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist Friday, Sep. 20, 2002 at 11:50 AM
dpatterson@biologicaldiversity.org Center for Biological Diversity, Idyllwild CA 92549-0493

Livestock Off 500K Acres for Fall to Protect Tortoise & Other Wildlife; BLM Under Court Order Despite Drought and Clear Legal Obligation, Problems Remain with BLM Enforcement

MOJAVE DESERT, CA -- For the third time, eight public lands livestock grazing permittees must move their cattle on drought-stricken public lands to protect the threatened desert tortoise. Under the terms of the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) court order, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her Bureau of Land Management (BLM) must ensure cattle do not graze on nearly half a million acres of public lands from Sept. 7 Nov. 7.

“Livestock are very damaging to California’s deserts, which did not evolve with large grazing animals. Cattle are especially devastating during extreme droughts like we are now seeing, trampling and eating everything in sight and starving the native wildlife.” says Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center in Idyllwild, who formerly worked with BLM in the Mojave Desert. “The agreement provides moderate relief for wildlife in fall and spring, but BLM should have ordered livestock removed from all desert public lands long ago.” He reasons, “Seasonally moving cattle so tortoises can eat and mate is not a lot to require of permittees who are using the public lands for private gain.”

BLM’s lack of enforcement of the tortoise conservation measure remains a problem. This spring the agency witnessed cattle illegally grazing in closed areas on public lands at least seventeen times on six allotments in the Barstow, Ridgecrest and Palm Springs areas, but failed to follow up with required enforcement actions such as fines, extension of the grazing restrictions, herd size reductions, impoundment of cattle and possible cancellation of ranchers’ public lands grazing privileges. Conservationists consider this lax approach a violation of the court order governing desert grazing, and vow to seek contempt charges against BLM managers if violations are ignored again.

“So far, BLM has monitored for trespass cattle, but not enforced the court order when violations were seen.” said Elden Hughes, longtime desert protection champion with the Sierra Club. “We hope BLM’s new Desert District Manager Linda Hansen will follow up when violations are observed.” He adds, “The Mojave tortoise is on the edge of extinction. Grazing regulations are a victory, but the tortoise will need many victories to recover.”

Last summer, after two weeks of hearings in Barstow, U.S. Interior Dept. Judge Harvey C. Sweitzer - acting with Secretarial level authority - upheld BLM’s science-based arguments for endangered species protection and recovery, by seasonally limiting damaging livestock grazing on nearly 500,000 acres of fragile public lands habitat within the 11.5 million acres administered by BLM in the CDCA. Since agreeing to and arguing for the livestock restrictions, BLM has inexplicably issued plans that favor the eight ranchers by proposing to dump protections. To protect the tortoise, conservationists are challenging the Bush Administration’s roll back attempts.

“All the tortoises currently in the allotments at issue could probably be more environmentally accommodated on the President's Texas ranch than on a parched desert where these ancient reptiles already struggle daily for survival,” said Karen Schambach, California Coordinator for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “They can't and shouldn't have to compete with animals that have mobility and appetites of cattle.”

The carefully negotiated CDCA grazing settlement partially implements the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan recommendations for livestock reduction and removal from critical habitat. It is scientifically shown that livestock mow down spring and fall annual plants essential to tortoise health and reproduction. The hoofed livestock also trample tortoises and their burrows, killing tortoises or wrecking their homes. The CDCA settlement was negotiated to aid desert tortoise recovery by preventing grazing on 285,381 acres of critical and 213,281 acres of essential tortoise habitat during the biologically critical spring and fall seasons. The agency further agreed to prohibit grazing year-round on an additional 11,079 acres of active allotments.

“The seasonal closures are a step in the right direction to protect tortoises,” said Dr. Michael Connor, Executive Director of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee in Riverside. “But BLM should be implementing the 1994 tortoise recovery plan they signed to remove all livestock year-round from critical habitat.”

Conservation groups and BLM will undertake separate on-the-ground monitoring efforts now - Nov. 7.

For more on public lands ranching and a comprehensive new book on the topic, please see: http://www.publiclandsranching.org/htmlres/welfareranchingpicture.htm

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