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Tortoise Takes Place in Line for Federal Listing
Tortoise Takes Place in Line for Federal Listing
Decision a Step Forward, Delayed Protection Remains a Concern
Contact: Mark Salvo (503) 757-4221
Washington, DC—Dec. 13. U.S. Secretary of InteriorKen Salazar has determined that the Sonoran desert tortoise warrants listingunder the Endangered Species Act, but also claims that such protection isprecluded due to higher priorities. Salazar’s decision will be published intomorrow’s edition of the FederalRegister. While a step forward for the Sonoran desert tortoise, the animalwill be placed on the Endangered Species Act candidate list, where it willreceive no federal safeguards until it is actually listed as “endangered” or “threatened.”
The determination was made in response to anOctober 2008 petition submitted by WildEarth Guardians and Western WatershedsProject, as well as multiple rounds of litigation to force Salazar to make alisting determination. The groups had previously warned the federal governmentthat this iconic desert dweller cannot afford further delay in its protection.Their petition demonstrated that monitored populations of the tortoise havedeclined by more than 51 percent since the government originally refused itprotection two decades ago.
There are now over 250 species of plants andwildlife that are “candidates” for federallisting. Many of these species have been on the waiting list for a decadeor more. Outside of Hawaii, Salazar has listed only 4 new U.S. species underthe Act since taking office. At the current pace, it would take a centuryto process the backlog of candidate species in the continental U.S.
“The Sonoran desert tortoise can survive heat,drought, scarce food and water, and a multitude of predators, but it cannottolerate further delays in its protection,” said Mark Salvo of WildEarthGuardians. “Secretary Salazar needs to make up for lost time and actually grantthese highly imperiled creatures much-needed federal safeguards.”
The Sonoran desert tortoise occurs in southwestArizona and northern Mexico. In his finding, Salazar determined that Sonoran deserttortoises qualify for protection as a distinct population, different from othertortoises found in the Mojave Desert west of the Colorado River that werefederally listed in 1990. The Black Mountains north of Flagstaff, Arizona,contain the only Mojave desert tortoise population found east of the ColoradoRiver. They were excluded from federalprotection in 1990 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted to limit protectionof Mojave desert tortoises to those found west of the Colorado River.
“The science shows that Arizona’s Sonoran and BlackMountains desert tortoises are in serious trouble. The Secretary admits thatagency management of the Sonoran desert tortoise and its habitat is currently inadequate. These tortoises need protection underthe Endangered Species Act now so that federal agencies are mandated to takethe measures needed to reverse this trend to extinction,” stated Dr. MichaelConnor of Western Watersheds Project and a twenty year advocate for deserttortoise protection.
In his finding, Secretary Salazar determined thatthe Sonoran desert tortoises may be threatened by all five factors the agencyuses in deciding whether a species qualifies for Endangered Species Actprotection: 1) habitat loss and destruction; 2) overutilization; 3) disease orpredation; 4) inadequate legal protections; and 5) other factors. Under theAct, the tortoise needs only to qualify under one of these factors to warrantlisting. The list of threats facing the tortoise is long and includes habitatloss from livestock grazing, urbanization, energy development, border control activities, off-road vehicle use,roads, and mining; shooting, and collection for pets or food; disease and predation;inadequate legal protection, including on federal and state public lands;altered fire patterns due to exotic weeds; crushing and killing of tortoises byoff-road vehicle users; and prolonged drought, exacerbated by the climatecrisis.
Livestock grazing is a significant threat to theSonoran desert tortoise. More than half of the tortoise’s estimated range inArizona is on federal public land (8,406,692 acres) and more than half of thatpublic land is permitted for livestock grazing (on more than 200 grazingallotments). Grazing is even permitted on important desert tortoise habitat indesignated wilderness and in the Ironwood Forest and Sonoran Desert nationalmonuments – areas purportedly established for conservation purposes.
The Sonoran desert tortoise has a number ofcharacteristics that make it vulnerable to extinction. Tortoises do not reachsexual maturity until they are approximately 10-20 years old, and femalesproduce only produce one clutch of eggs per year. Tortoise hatchlings have verysoft shells, making them susceptible to predators and harsh weather. Tortoisesdepend on sufficient forage in a region that is heavily grazed by livestock andthat is experiencing prolonged drought and effects of climate change. The Servicehas recognized the tortoises’ fragile existence, noting that the simple act ofa human picking up a tortoise could cause the tortoise to urinate, which couldjeopardize its life due to the resulting loss of water. The Sonoran deserttortoise shares its habitat with many other imperiled species that would alsoenjoy benefits if this tortoise was listed under federal law.
WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Projectare conservation organizations with offices throughout the western UnitedStates, including in Arizona.