Clark County, Nevada, encompasses 8 million square miles of the southernmost tip of the state and has a human population of almost 2 million — as well as housing much of the state’s desert tortoise population. To allow for development in desert tortoise habitat, local governments worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal land-managing agencies to develop “habitat conservation plans” that in fact do little in the way of conservation. When implemented, these plans would lead to a blanket permit to destroy tortoises and their habitat up to a permitted level under the Endangered Species Act.
The current habitat conservation plan, approved in 2000, affects 78 species of plants and animals and effectively permits the destruction of 145,000 acres of tortoise habitat in exchange for various measures geared toward conservation, including a fee by developers to fund conservation work (mostly on federal lands) and establish a reserve system on federal lands to protect habitat outside the development area for species covered by the plan. This “streamlined” permitting system led to the extraordinary growth of the Las Vegas Valley and so far has destroyed 78,000 acres of tortoise habitat.
Despite very serious questions about the sustainability of the Las Vegas Valley, particularly with respect to the availability of water, and in spite of about 67,000 acres of land still available for development under the current permit, Clark County and the municipal jurisdictions have initiated a process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to amend the plan so that an additional 210,000 acres can be developed. The Center has filed comments under the National Environmental Policy Act compelling the preparation of an environmental impact statement — currently underway — to analyze the environmental harm that would result from additional habitat destruction. We also regularly attend sessions of the “citizen’s advisory committee” established by the county (unfortunately stacked heavily with pro-development interests) and are rallying public support to voice opposition to this amendment.