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Feds Deny Desert Tortoises Endangered Species Act Safeguards

October 5, 2015
Taylor Jones (720) 443-2615
In This Release
Washington, DC—Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) declared Morafka’s desert tortoises “not warranted” for Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections despite looming threats from climate change and drought. The finding comes in response to a 2008 petition to list the species by WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project. The decision was due by the end of September as part of a groundbreaking legal settlement between Guardians and the Service, which works to resolve the large backlog of imperiled species awaiting protection.

“The Service’s new motto seems to be giving the benefit of the doubt to extractive industries and unenforceable conservation agreements, rather than to imperiled species.We’ll be looking closely at this decision to make sure that’s not the case for the desert tortoise,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians.

Desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert have enjoyed ESA protections since 1990, but desert tortoises in the Sonoran Desert have yet to receive ESA protections. Scientists recently determined that these two populations are actually two different species: Morafka’s desert tortoise (Gopherusmorafkai) in the Sonoran, and Agassiz’s desert tortoise (G. agassizii) in the Mojave. Tortoises are well-adapted to desert life; they meet most of their water needs through the grasses, annual wildflowers, and cacti they eat, and spend almost 95 percent of their lives in cool, sheltered burrows excavated under rocks and shrubs.

The Service made Morafka’s desert tortoise a candidate for ESA protection in 2010, due to threats including urban development, off-road vehicles (ORV), roads, illegal collecting for the pet trade, and climate change. The Southwest is already feeling acute impacts of climate change and prolonged drought.

“It’s unclear whether the Service adequately considered the impacts of threats like grazing and ORV use on our public lands,especially combined with drought and climate change,” said Jones. “And while it is important to acknowledge uncertainty regarding climate change impacts, the Service has a disturbing history of using small amounts of uncertainty to deny needed protections to species facing clear threats.”

Protection under the ESA is an effective safety net for imperiled species: more than 99 percent of plants and animals protected by the law exist today. The law is especially important as a defense against the current extinction crisis; species are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities. Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct if not for ESA protections. Without ESA protections, desert tortoises are in greater danger of extinction.