RENO, Nev.– Yesterday the Bureau of Land Management announced an emergency closure of 3,985 acres of public land in and adjacent to the Sand Mountain Recreation Area near Fallon, Nevada, to off-road vehicles to protect the rare Sand Mountain blue butterfly. The species is suffering from increasing habitat loss due to off-road vehicle route proliferation, and this closure comes as part of a coordinated response to a petition from public-interest groups to list the Sand Mountain blue butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 to secure protections for this species under the Endangered Species Act. In 2006 the Service found that the petition presented substantial information that a listing may be warranted. The closure is being undertaken in accordance with an agreement recently adopted by the Bureau, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and local cities, counties and tribes.
“The closure is a good first step toward protecting the Sand Mountain blue butterfly, which exists nowhere else in the world,” said Lisa Belenky, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s a positive response to our Endangered Species Act petition. But clearly we need to do even more. There are still questions that urgently need to be answered about the status of the species, what it needs to survive, and whether the butterfly can recover from the past habitat destruction and ongoing fragmentation that the closure will allow.”
The butterfly is dependent on approximately 1,000 acres of Kearney buckwheat shrub habitat at the Sand Mountain Dunes, which gets heavy use from off-road vehicles. Because it exists nowhere else, destruction of the dunes would mean extinction of the butterfly, and the Sand Mountain habitat has suffered extensive destruction and modification from off-road vehicles.
From 1993 to 2003 the Bureau of Land Management reported a 25-percent increase in visitor use at the recreation area, with extensive illegal route proliferation throughout the area and on neighboring lands. The Kearney buckwheat was once pervasive in the vicinity of the dunes, but in the past 25 years more than half of the habitat has been lost, with a large portion of the adult plants destroyed and recruitment of new plants also suffering.
“In the past, the Bureau of Land Management has been very slow to respond to the plight of this butterfly, ignoring its own data that shows habitat for this species has been decimated by recreational excesses,” says Karen Schambach of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “We are encouraged that the agency is now taking strong steps on paper to protect some of the essential butterfly habitat, but we think that there is still too much intrusion into essential habitat and the real test of the Bureau’s commitment to protecting butterfly habitat will be enforcement.”
Sand Mountain Recreation Area consists of 4,795 acres of public lands that have in the past been completely open to unrestricted off-road vehicle use. American Indian communities nearby consider the dunes sacred and have long voiced concern about off-road vehicle damage.
“This area was traditionally known as Singing Sand Mountain. It is a rare dunes ecosystem that has been badly mismanaged by the Bureau in the past,” said Charles Watson of the Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association. “We hope that this closure is an indication that the Bureau is finally stepping up to its responsibilities to preserve this area for future generations of Nevadans.”