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Decision a Step Forward, Delayed Protection Remains a Concern
Washington, DC—Dec. 13. U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has determined that the Sonoran desert tortoise warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act, but also claims that such protection is precluded due to higher priorities. Salazar’s decision will be published in tomorrow’s edition of the Federal Register. While a step forward for the Sonoran desert tortoise, the animal will be placed on the Endangered Species Act candidate list, where it will receive no federal safeguards until it is actually listed as “endangered” or “threatened.”
The determination was made in response to an October 2008 petition submitted by WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, as well as multiple rounds of litigation to force Salazar to make a listing determination. The groups had previously warned the federal government that this iconic desert dweller cannot afford further delay in its protection. Their petition demonstrated that monitored populations of the tortoise have declined by more than 51 percent since the government originally refused it protection two decades ago.
There are now over 250 species of plants and wildlife that are “candidates” for federal listing. Many of these species have been on the waiting list for a decade or more. Outside of Hawaii, Salazar has listed only 4 new U.S. species under the Act since taking office. At the current pace, it would take a century to 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 cannot tolerate further delays in its protection,” said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians. “Secretary Salazar needs to make up for lost time and actually grant these highly imperiled creatures much-needed federal safeguards.”
The Sonoran desert tortoise occurs in southwest Arizona and northern Mexico. In his finding, Salazar determined that Sonoran desert tortoises qualify for protection as a distinct population, different from other tortoises found in the Mojave Desert west of the Colorado River that were federally listed in 1990. The Black Mountains north of Flagstaff, Arizona, contain the only Mojave desert tortoise population found east of the Colorado River. They were excluded from federal protection in 1990 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted to limit protection of Mojave desert tortoises to those found west of the Colorado River.
“The science shows that Arizona’s Sonoran and Black Mountains desert tortoises are in serious trouble. The Secretary admits that agency management of the Sonoran desert tortoise and its habitat is currently inadequate. These tortoises need protection under the Endangered Species Act now so that federal agencies are mandated to take the measures needed to reverse this trend to extinction,” stated Dr. Michael Connor of Western Watersheds Project and a twenty year advocate for desert tortoise protection.
In his finding, Secretary Salazar determined that the Sonoran desert tortoises may be threatened by all five factors the agency uses in deciding whether a species qualifies for Endangered Species Act protection: 1) habitat loss and destruction; 2) overutilization; 3) disease or predation; 4) inadequate legal protections; and 5) other factors. Under the Act, the tortoise needs only to qualify under one of these factors to warrant listing. The list of threats facing the tortoise is long and includes habitat loss 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 by off-road vehicle users; and prolonged drought, exacerbated by the climate crisis.
Livestock grazing is a significant threat to the Sonoran desert tortoise. More than half of the tortoise’s estimated range in Arizona is on federal public land (8,406,692 acres) and more than half of that public land is permitted for livestock grazing (on more than 200 grazing allotments). Grazing is even permitted on important desert tortoise habitat in designated wilderness and in the Ironwood Forest and Sonoran Desert national monuments - areas purportedly established for conservation purposes.
The Sonoran desert tortoise has a number of characteristics that make it vulnerable to extinction. Tortoises do not reach sexual maturity until they are approximately 10-20 years old, and females produce only produce one clutch of eggs per year. Tortoise hatchlings have very soft shells, making them susceptible to predators and harsh weather. Tortoises depend on sufficient forage in a region that is heavily grazed by livestock and that is experiencing prolonged drought and effects of climate change. The Service has recognized the tortoises’ fragile existence, noting that the simple act of a human picking up a tortoise could cause the tortoise to urinate, which could jeopardize its life due to the resulting loss of water. The Sonoran desert tortoise shares its habitat with many other imperiled species that would also enjoy benefits if this tortoise was listed under federal law.
WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project are conservation organizations with offices throughout the western United States, including in Arizona.