Contact: Daniel Patterson, Desert Ecologist, Center for Biological Diversity 520-906-2159
BARSTOW, CA - Seven months after a federal court approved a California desert grazing lawsuit settlement agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Sierra Club, the environmental groups are teaming with the BLM to defend decisions to protect desert wildlife against attacks from the livestock industry and San Bernardino County officials.
Starting tomorrow at 9 am in the city hall in Barstow, California, BLM and the environmental groups will defend science-based positions for wildlife protection and endangered species recovery, by seasonally limiting damaging livestock grazing on nearly 500,000 acres of fragile public lands habitat within the 11 million acres administered by BLM in the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA).
U.S. Department of the Interior Judge Harvey C. Sweitzer will preside over the evidentiary hearings, which are scheduled to go for eight days.
"The threatened desert tortoise and other rare wildlife will benefit from BLM's decision to limit grazing on their habitat," said Daniel Patterson, the Center's Desert Ecologist who formerly lived in Apple Valley and worked with BLM on tortoise recovery in the Mojave desert. "We're backing up BLM in defending the national interest for natural resource conservation against livestock industry excesses."
He adds, "BLM is moving toward long overdue habitat improvements to benefit the tortoise, and that's not too much to ask of ranchers who are grazing the public lands for private gain."
In January, federal Judge William Alsup carefully considered the objections of the less than a dozen affected public lands ranchers before approving the agreement as clearly within the public interest and rejecting the livestock industry's objections as overblown.
The habitat protections were supposed to be in place by March 1. BLM delayed implementation of the decision due to protests and appeals by the livestock industry and political stalling from the Bush Administration. After a sharp criticism this spring by Judge Alsup for violating the court's order on grazing, BLM was allowed to proceed with this expedited administrative appeals process and decide on the appeals by August 24.
"If the desert tortoise and other imperiled wildlife are to survive, it will be on these public lands," said Karen Schambach, PEER's California Coordinator. "Outside of the ranchers themselves and a handful of local politicians who think they can benefit by bashing BLM and it's employees, I think most Americans would choose survival of these unique species over a few head of cattle."
PEER has asked California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to investigate San Bernardino County official's threats and intimidation toward BLM employees, as reported in today's Los Angeles Times
The carefully negotiated CDCA grazing settlement helps BLM partially implement the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan recommendations for livestock reduction and removal from critical habitat. Cattle and sheep mow down spring annual plants essential to tortoise health and reproduction. The hoofed livestock also trample burrows, killing tortoises inside or wrecking their homes. The CDCA settlement 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. The agency further agreed to prohibit grazing year-round on an additional 11,079 acres of active allotments.
"The BLM could've decided there should be no more desert grazing, but they've decided to only move cattle off tortoise habitat during the few months when the tortoises need food." said Elden Hughes, longtime desert protection champion with the Sierra Club. "That's a reasonable middle-ground."
Conservationists are represented by attorney Jay Tutchton of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund - Denver.