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For Immediate Release, January 4, 2010

Contact: Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity, (323) 654-5943,  ianderson@biologicaldiversity.org 

Judge Overturns Decision to Open Off-road Vehicle Routes That Hurt Tortoise

LOS ANGELES— An administrative law judge for the Interior Board of Land Appeals upheld the Center for Biological Diversity appeal of the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to open two off-road vehicle routes in desert tortoise habitat in eastern Kern County. The Bureau’s decision was tiered to the flawed West Mojave Plan, which was struck down in federal court last year. The two routes at issue in the Rand Mountains Management Area, an area of critical environmental concern, had been closed in 2002 to protect the imperiled desert tortoise from destructive off-road vehicle use that was tearing up the fragile desert habitat.

In rendering its decision, the board set aside and remanded the decision to the Bureau of Land Management. As a result, the Bureau will need to reinstitute the closure of the routes and go back to the drawing board. The Bureau’s 2008 decision was based on an inadequate education and permit program that provided no education and no permit tracking and merely required riders to obtain and carry a map of the Rand Mountain Management Area with information on the back. The Bureau’s own monitoring over the past year has documented repeated cases in which off-roaders illegally cut fences and drove off designated routes into sensitive habitats.

“The number of illegal actions that have occurred since the education and permit program has been in place confirms the failure of the program,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The judge agreed with us that the Bureau needs to rethink the decision to open these routes.”

The Bureau fast-tracked the route opening and permit process and precluded public review of, and comment on, the shortcomings of the flawed plan. The routes are directly adjacent to the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, private conservation lands set up to protect desert tortoise in the wild.  

Having survived tens of thousands of years in California’s deserts, desert tortoise numbers have declined rapidly in recent years. The crash of populations is due to many factors, including disease, crushing by vehicles, military and suburban development, habitat degradation, and predation by dogs and ravens. Because of its dwindling numbers, the desert tortoise, which is California’s official state reptile, is now protected under both federal and state endangered species law.

Population genetics studies have recently shown that the desert tortoise in the western Mojave desert, including the Rand Mountain tortoises, is distinctly different from its relatives to the north, east, and south. This finding sheds new light on why increased conservation is more important than ever for the animals in the western Mojave.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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