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Desert Tortoise: "Recovery," Not Just "Survival"

On August 3rd, 2004 a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that the Bush administration's Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to sufficiently protect the imperiled desert tortoise in its critical habitat. A major victory for the desert tortoise and other endangered species in the California desert, the Court struck down permits issued by FWS authorizing Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans for extensive cattle grazing and off-road vehicle use within the 4.1 million acres of critical desert tortoise habitat located in the 25 million acre California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA). The Court's decision is a critical step towards stopping habitat degradation and the killing and crushing of tortoises and their dens by cattle and off-road vehicles.

Upholding the recovery intent of the Endangered Species Act, the Court said FWS neglected to consider the negative affects of the BLM plans on endangered species' recovery, instead looking only at survival. "[T]he Court finds that congressional intent in enacting the ESA was clear: critical habitat exists to promote the recovery and survival of listed species . . . ," wrote the judge. "Conservation means more than survival; it means recovery."

Earthjustice attorney on the case, Michael Lozeau said of the ruling, "Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act, FWS and other agencies like BLM have been actively avoiding complying with Congress' command that they take all necessary actions to recover endangered and threatened species. The federal court's ruling restores Congress' intent that critical habitat, including the desert tortoise critical habitat located in the CDCA, be managed to restore tortoises, not to subsidize grazing cows in the desert or serve as off-road vehicle highways."