August 24, 2001
Environmentalists won a battle to uphold a U.S. Bureau of Land Management plan to limit desert ranching and grazing in critical tortoise habitat in California’s Mojave desert. U.S. Dept. of the Interior Administrative Law Judge Harvey C. Sweitzer decided in favor of the legal and scientific arguments advanced by the Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during grazing hearings held in Barstow July 24-Aug. 7.
The BLM and conservationist interveners were represented by Earthjustice, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Sierra Club.
Earlier this year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a federal court approved a California desert grazing lawsuit settlement agreement between the BLM and conservationists. In the latest action, environmental groups teamed with the BLM to defend decisions to protect desert wildlife against attacks from the livestock industry and San Bernardino County officials.
The Aug. 24 decision upholds that cattle grazing harms the desert tortoise and its critical habitat. Sweitzer also found that BLM could have consulted more with the grazing permittees, but according to Earthjustice, the public lands ranchers were uncooperative and would not talk with the BLM.
The BLM grazing plan would seasonally limit livestock grazing on nearly 500,000 acres of public lands within the 11 million acres administered by BLM in the California Desert Conservation Area.
The CDCA settlement, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, compels the BLM to partially implement the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan recommendations for livestock reduction and removal from critical habitat. Cattle and sheep damage spring annual plants essential to tortoise health and reproduction. The hoofed livestock also trample burrows, killing tortoises inside, or destroying 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.
In January, federal judge William Alsup considered the objections of the less-than-one-dozen affected public lands ranchers before approving the agreement as clearly within the public interest and rejecting the livestock industry’s objections. The habitat protections were supposed to be in place by March 1. The BLM delayed implementation of the decision due to protests, appeals by the livestock industry and political stalling from the Bush Administration, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. After criticism this spring by Judge Alsup for violating the court’s order on grazing, the BLM was allowed to proceed with this expedited administrative appeals process and decide on the appeals by Aug. 24.
“Sept. 7 is fast approaching and tortoises will need good plant nutrition and protection from livestock grazing,” said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “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 added.
Judge Sweitzer essentially threw the decision back to BLM for further action, although ranchers won on one factual argument — the “CCC” argument. The argument complained that BLM failed to (C)onsult, (C)ooperate and (C)oordinate with the ranchers. But Earthjustice noted that ranchers told BLM not to call or visit and that they didn’t want to have anything to do with the BLM. They then turned around in court and complained that BLM didn’t call often enough.
Earthjustice views this as a simple procedural violation of the BLM’s regulations and because the grazing decisions are otherwise legal and scientifically justified — the interveners expect the BLM to fix the procedural violation and implement the decisions by Sept. 7, or be in contempt of court.
“We expect BLM to be more zealous in tracking these ranchers down and to do it before Sept. 7, and immediately start protecting the tortoise,” said Jay Tutchton, an attorney with Earthjustice who represented the conservation groups. “Otherwise, BLM’s behavior is contemptuous of the federal court order.”