Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.

NEWS RELEASE: for immediate release Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2003

Livestock Off 248,000 Desert Acres for Spring to Protect Tortoise & Other Wildlife
252,000 acres have lost protection under new BLM plans that will soon be challenged.

Contact: Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist, Center for Biological Diversity 909.659.6053 x 306
More Information: California Desert Conservation Area

MOJAVE DESERT, CA -- For the fourth time, six public lands livestock grazing permittees must move their cattle on desert public lands to protect the threatened desert tortoise from starvation and trampling. About a quarter million acres of desert habitat will be protected this spring by the move. 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 a quarter million acres of desert tortoise habitat from March 1 - June 15.

Scientists have shown that livestock grazing removes important food plants for tortoises, leaving them with a less nutritious diet which makes them more likely to develop diseases or die. This is also true in wetter years, which are important to provide tortoises with a nutrient bounce to off-set drought stress.

BLM's recently approved Northern and Eastern Colorado (NECO) Plan and Northern and Eastern Mojave (NEMO) Plan roll-back tortoise protections by allowing livestock grazing on 252,000 acres where it was previously restricted. Conservationists plan a legal challenge to this soon for violations of the Endangered Species Act and other laws. For a copy of the notice of intent to sue, please contact Daniel R. Patterson.

“Livestock are very damaging to the Mojave desert, which did not evolve with large grazing animals. Cattle are especially devastating, trampling and eating everything in sight and starving tortoises and other 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 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. Last spring and fall the agency witnessed cattle illegally grazing in closed areas on public lands at least twenty 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. Violations impacting riparian areas in Afton and Rattlesnake Canyons were a particular repeated problem. Conservationists consider this lax approach a violation of the court order governing desert grazing, and may seek contempt charges against BLM managers if violations are ignored again.

In August 2001, 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 livestock production by dumping the important tortoise protections. To protect the tortoise, conservationists are challenging the Bush Administration’s anti-environmental roll backs.

“All the cattle currently on these allotments could probably be better accommodated on the President's Texas ranch than on the Mojave desert where tortoises need annual plant growth for survival,” said Patterson. “Tortoises cannot and should not 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 between BLM, the Center, Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility 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, but 252,000 acres have had their protection removed by new BLM plans which roll-back conservation. The agency further agreed to prohibit grazing year-round on an additional 11,079 acres of active allotments.

The stipulated agreement also prohibits authorization of any sheep grazing on 951,953 acres and completely removes cows from 43,596 acres of desert tortoise habitat. The BLM is also prohibited from permitting cattle grazing on 394,835 acres of currently ungrazed endangered species habitat.

Conservation groups and BLM will undertake separate on-the-ground monitoring efforts this spring.

Contact BLM California Desert District Manager Linda Hansen, 909.697.5214


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