| For Immediate Release: May 5, 2006
Bush Administration Refuses to Consider Protection for
BLM’s Plan to Open 86 Percent of Fragile Dune Habitat to Off-Road Vehicles
Washington, DC – The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today unwisely announced it will not consider Endangered Species Act protection for the rare Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle. The beetle lives on dunes in fragile Sonoran Desert habitat in southeast California, and is threatened by intensive off-road vehicle use, especially on the Algodones (Imperial) Sand Dunes.
The Center for Biological Diversity (Center) filed a petition to list and protect the beetle under the Endangered Species Act in December 2002. The Center was forced to go to court in December 2004 because the Bush administration failed to respond to the petition. The Center, along with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Sierra Club, also filed a petition to protect 16 other Algodones Dunes endemic animals as threatened or endangered. A decision on that petition is still pending.
The biggest harm to Algodones Dunes wildlife is intensive off-road driving – the dunes are severely damaged by up to 240,000 off-road vehicles (ORVs) on a single busy weekend. ORVs at the Algodones Dunes include sand rails, motorcycles, trucks and all-terrain vehicles, which have tires that cut deeply into the sand habitat, even when accelerating on level ground (Stebbins 1995). The dunes are currently managed under a 2000 court-approved agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), ORV riders and conservationists. The agreement keeps over 106 square miles open to unlimited off-road driving, while nearly 50,000 acres of the dunes are protected for wildlife and scenic non-motorized recreation. Despite this fair balance, the dunes have suffered from illegal off-road driving in protected habitat areas and lax BLM enforcement. ORV lobbyists and the BLM are pushing to scrap the current balanced multiple-use management and open nearly 50,000 acres dunes habitat to destructive ORV driving, but the courts have repeatedly blocked such extreme actions in response to challenges from the Center.
Dunes are hotspots of desert biological diversity, likely because they are more mesic than other desert habitats due to their ability to store water. The Algodones Dunes are no exception, harboring dozens of rare endemic wildlife and plants within its habitat island. Animal species endemic to the Algodones Dunes are adapted to the hot, arid environment and often exhibit habitat specialization, such as dependence upon a particular host plant. Narrow endemic species and habitat specialists are considered more prone to extinction than widespread habitat generalists (Rabinowitz 1981, Sarre et al. 1995, Fischer and Stocklin 1997, Henein et al.1998).
“Protection of the dunes scarab beetle is needed now, because the off-road lobby and BLM plan to sacrifice the Algodones Dunes is a huge threat to the desert’s web-of-life,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center who formerly worked with BLM in the California desert. “We do not agree with FWS on this finding, and may again be forced to challenge it in court.”
In addition to the Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle, the 16 endangered endemic dune species are: two sand wasps (Microbembex elegans Griswold and Stictiella villegasi Bohart); two bees (Perdita algodones Timberlake and P. glamis Timberlake); one vespid (Euparagia n. sp.); two velvet ants (Dasymutilla nocturna Mickel and Dasymutilla imperialis); three jewel beetles (Algodones sand jewel beetle, Lepismadora algodones Velten; Algodones white wax jewel beetle, Prasinalia imperialis Barr; and Algodones Croton jewel beetle, Agrilus harenus Nelson); two scarab beetles (Hardy’s dune beetle, Anomala hardyorum Potts and Cyclocephala wandae); and four subspecies of Roth’s dune weevil (Trigonoscuta rothi rothi, T. r. algodones, T. r. imperialis and T. r. punctata). Conservationists are also seeking critical habitat designations for all 17 species concurrent with listing, as required by law.
During daylight and early evening, 80 percent of desert fauna are buried underground and are subsequently crushed by off-road vehicle tires (Stebbins 1995). For example, scientific surveys at the Algodones Dunes comparing areas used by ORVs with protected areas indicate that off-road driving causes drastic reductions in the abundance of several beetle species (Luckenbach and Bury 1983). Off-road driving also resulted in reduced plant cover, further threatening the survival of the rare endemic species of the Algodones Dunes that depend on these plants for food and breeding sites. Studies at the dunes have shown that even moderate ORV use results in significant reductions of plant cover (Luckenbach and Bury 1983, Hess in prep.).
The preferred alternative in BLM’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed Recreation Area Management Plan for the Algodones Dunes (BLM RAMP 2002) would permit ORV use on an astounding 198,220 acres and protect only 25,800 acres – all of which is already protected as wilderness by an act of Congress. The one-sided plan has been struck down in federal court, but still is being pushed by the Bush administration without any consideration of the myriad rare endemic species that are the subject of the July 2004 petition. In fact, the BLM DEIS listed only five insect species “known to occur or having the potential to occur” at the Algodones Dunes, and only three of the species are endemics (Andrew’s dune scarab beetle, Carlson’s dune beetle, and Hardy’s dune beetle). Therefore, the BLM ignored the nearly two-dozen other endemic insects at the Algodones Dunes for which information has long been available in the scientific literature. Conservationists were able to locate information on these endemics readily in the published literature, reports to the agency, and via personal communication with entomologists familiar with the area. Thus it is disturbing why the BLM made no acknowledgement of these species in its management plan.
BLM has continued to push its abysmal management plan despite scientifically proven adverse impacts of ORVs on the species that inhabit the Algodones Dunes. Vulnerability from anthropogenic (historic, ongoing, and imminent human-caused habitat destruction) and environmental (restricted range, habitat specialist) pressures, as well as a complete failure of the existing regulatory mechanisms to protect this fragile dune habitat and the species it supports, puts the rare endemic wildlife at the Algodones Dunes at risk of extinction.
The BLM plan to eliminate the protected areas would devastate dozens of imperiled species – including the Peirson’s milkvetch, desert tortoise, Algodones dunes sunflower, flat-tailed horned lizard and Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle. It would also greatly worsen air pollution and drive away hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, Native Americans and others. In addition to allowing intense environmental harm, opening conservation areas to ORVs will displace and deter non-motorized visitors, costing nearby communities in the Imperial Valley and Yuma at least $3.3 million annually in sustainable recreation related spending.
In 2004, FWS rejected a petition by the ORV industry to remove Endangered Species Act protection for the Peirson’s milkvetch, finding that the rare flowering plant is harmed by off-road vehicles and in need of continued legal protection. However, it recently reversed course after intervention by the Department of Interior’s Julie MacDonald and are looking to de-list the milkvetch.