California Desert Tortoises Await Outcome of Grazing Consultations

WASHINGTON, DC, August 24, 2001 (ENS) - An Interior Department administrative judge ruled today that cattle grazing in the California desert harms the desert tortoise and its critical habitat, but he set aside final grazing decisions for more consultation with ranchers.

Administrative Law Judge Harvey Sweitzer of the Interior Department's Office of Hearings and Appeals remanded the Bureau of Land Management's decisions back to the bureau for further action and consultation. The decisions restrict seasonal livestock grazing in parts of the California desert to protect the threatened desert tortoise.

The judge's lengthy ruling addresses the appeals of eight grazing permittees of the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) May 15 decisions.


California desert tortoise (Photo courtesy BLM California)
The BLM decisions required the ranchers involved to remove their livestock from portions of their allotments nearly all within San Bernardino County, during the spring, May 1 to June 15, and the fall, September 7 through November 7, when the tortoises are most active. A total of 427,000 acres of public lands is affected.

Department of the Interior spokesman Mark Pfeifle blamed the Clinton administration for the entire situation. "The previous administration made promises that were impossible to keep, and forced the case into this unfortunate and unavoidable position," he said.

Pfeifle said, "We made a good faith effort to meet an impossible schedule and provide fairness to all parties. Our goal is to find common ground and consensus to both protect the desert tortoise and its habitat and allow family ranchers to provide for their families and continue their way of life."

The BLM and the conservationist interveners represented by Earthjustice - the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Sierra Club - won on every legal and scientific issue, says Brian Smith, spokesman for Earthjustice their legal team.

"The decision firmly upholds that cattle grazing harms the desert tortoise and its critical habitat," said Smith. "The judge also found that BLM could have consulted more with the permittees; but the public lands ranchers were being uncooperative and would not talk with BLM."

The judge ruled that the BLM must now consult further with the ranchers.

BLM California Desert Acting District Manager Bruce Schaefer said, there will not be the beginning of an interim removal of cattle grazing by September 7. "We have our direction from the judge. Go back and do consultation."

"We feel that we had done consultation with the permittees during the development of easements, but the judge points out - we didn't." Schaefer said that the BLM staff who were working with the permittees "felt we did a good job of trying to communicate."

BLM spokesman Doran Sanchez could not say what degree of cooperation the ranchers and the BLM staff have, telling ENS he was not out in the field.

The grazing permittees will not be removed from the lands in question by September 7," Sanchez said. "There will not be the beginning of an interim removal by September 7, because the judge has asked us to go back and do consultation."

The environmentalists' view is that BLM must do whatever consultation with permittees is needed within the next two weeks. "Failure to have the grazing settlement implemented by September 7 will mean BLM is in contempt of the court order," Smith said.

Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity says it is critical for the tortoises that the cattle be removed by the deadline date. "September 7 is fast approaching and tortoises will need good plant nutrition and protection from livestock grazing," he said.

"BLM should immediately begin vigorous work with conservationists and the livestock industry to get cattle moved to other parts of these allotments on time, and ensure the tortoise does not suffer through another key season without proper food," Patterson said.

The Interior Department's Pfeifle says both objectives can be served. "We believe that with a process of communication, collaboration and consultation, all to the service of conservation, we can protect the desert tortoise and allow family ranchers to continue their way of life," he said.

For three million years, the desert tortoise survived and adapted to changing climates in what is now the California Desert. They are under assault now from an upper respiratory disease, raven predation on the young, drought, illegal collecting, and vandalism, the BLM says. Habitat has also deteriorated over much of their range. As a result, the desert tortoise has been federally and state listed as a threatened species.