Six counties to sue feds over tortoise protection

By Mary Manning


Nevada - Six counties, including Lincoln County, announced their intention to file a lawsuit against the federal government over protection of the Mojave Desert tortoise.

The QuadState County Government Coalition, formed in 1998, filed a notice on Friday that it intends to sue the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management in 60 days over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Among allegations in the notice, the coalition said that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to monitor and reassess the recovery of the tortoise, that Fish and Wildlife and the BLM made arbitrary decisions related to federal land management decisions, failed to minimize adverse social and economic effects and failed to use the best available science in making federal decisions.

In addition to Lincoln County, coalition members include Kern, Imperial and San Bernardino counties in California, Washington County, Utah, and Mohave County, Ariz.

In 1990 the Mojave Desert tortoise was listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The federal government designated more than 6.4 million acres as critical habitat for the tortoise population in 1994. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed the designation with a desert tortoise recovery plan in June 1994. That plan called for a formal review within three to five years of adoption.

The coalition's notice said that the federal review should have taken place by 1999.

The coalition's notice also said that a General Accounting Office report in December 2002 said that the federal agencies overseeing tortoise protection had spent about $100 million in federal funds to manage the desert reptiles in the past 10 years, but could not show whether the funds had benefited the creatures.

Tortoise populations in Southern California, Southern Nevada, southwestern Utah and Arizona were rapidly declining when the federal government declared them endangered.

Scientists have attributed the the population drop to disease, predators such as ravens and feral dogs and other causes.

Lincoln County officials plan to join the challenge to the federal government's actions because the government rejected its Caliente Land Use Plan to protect the tortoises, County Commissioner Tim Perkins said. The plan includes 42,000 acres of land in southern Lincoln County that lobbyist Harvey Whittemore wants to develop into a golf community.

The declaration of a large swath of Whittemore's property as potential tortoise habitat has delayed the development plans.

The Caliente Land Use Plan eliminated grazing on several parcels and restricted extracting even sand and gravel for highway maintenance, Perkins said.

"The plan said our tortoise populations were stable, we protested on this inconsistency and they summarily rejected our input," Perkins said. "Lincoln County has only 2 percent private land."


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