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Desert tortoise
The Press-Enterprise, August 29, 2011

Recovery plan issued for desert tortoise
By Janet Zimmerman

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a new recovery plan for the threatened desert tortoise, drawing complaints from an environmental group that contends it is less protective than what is currently in place.

The recovery blueprint is aimed at reversing declines of tortoises in the Mojave Desert . It follows a 1994 version that identified the species' biggest threats: livestock grazing, off-road vehicles and non-native plants. Since then, global climate change and renewable energy development over vast expanses of the desert also have become critical issues.

The revision takes into account earlier criticisms of the 1994 plan, with a more coordinated approach to recovery efforts and ways to determine how effective they are, said Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife in Reno. With the new plan, regional teams will meet regularly and use a computer model to map and evaluate recovery efforts.

"It really makes it a much more interactive and ongoing process instead of just passing a document out to the various agencies and walking away from it," he said.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity , said the plan doesn't address renewable energy development, which she considers one of the biggest threats to the tortoise.

Averill-Murray said energy development will be discussed in a future addition to the plan.

One of the biggest changes is the use of "recovery implementation teams," the regional groups of stakeholders, land managers and scientists, to plan and implement recovery actions.

Anderson blasted the move, saying inclusion of off-roaders, renewable energy developers and mining companies -- who don't have desert tortoise recovery as their primary concern -- will dilute the efforts.

In Fish and Wildlife's view, it helps to get buy-in from the other groups, including the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service , which make decisions for the land they oversee, Averill-Murray said.

"Getting them on board to help us, with implementation or enforcement, keeps them more engaged in the process, and they're not just outsiders," he said.

There also was some controversy over the plan's reduction of tortoise recovery units, from six to five. A recovery unit is based on genetically distinct populations of tortoises and their ecosystems; each would have its own implementation team.

Anderson said the move lumps together tortoises in the eastern Mojave near Needles with those in the Colorado Desert near El Centro, even though they may be genetically distinct and adapt differently to climate change , she said.

Averill-Murray said that Fish and Wildlife took the two most recent genetics studies and interpreted the data, along with additional information. It was peer reviewed by a conservation geneticist, he said.

© 2011 Enterprise Media

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton