The carefully negotiated California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) grazing settlement helps implement the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan recommendations for livestock reduction and removal from critical habitat. Cattle and sheep mow down spring annual plants essential to tortoise health and reproduction. The hoofed livestock also trample burrows, killing tortoises inside or wrecking their homes.
"The desert tortoise only has four months in which to eat all its going to eat for the year, and those months are now," said Elden Hughes, a longtime desert conservation champion with the Sierra Club.
"It's clear that Bush's Interior Secretary Gale Norton is kow-towing to the livestock industry by blocking on-the-ground action to reduce harm to the desert tortoise," said Daniel Patterson, the Center's Desert Ecologist who formerly worked with BLM in the Mojave desert. "We negotiated in good faith for a reasonable grazing settlement which BLM is ignoring." He adds, "We will not sit back while wildlife suffers as cattle industry and Bush Administration anti-environmental politics subvert a court ordered settlement."
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 biologically important spring and fall seasons (March 1-June 15 & Sept. 7 Nov. 7). The agency further agreed to allow no grazing year-round on an additional 11,079 acres of active allotments. BLM has blatantly ignored the March 1 deadline it agreed to in December.
BLM admitted in a March 20 memo to the Center that cattle are illegally grazing sensitive habitat on at least 504,441 acres across ten public land allotments in Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo counties where the agency had agreed to remove cattle to protect wildlife and water quality.
"The allotments are not currently being monitored for compliance, certainly not for the lawsuit stipulation since proposed grazing decisions have not yet been issued." wrote BLM in the March 20 memo to the Center.
In January, the court carefully considered the objections of the less than ten affected public lands ranchers before approving the agreement as within the public interest and rejecting the rancher's objections as overblown. "BLM's regulations authorize the agency to remove cattle from the public lands immediately when public natural resources, such as the desert tortoise, are threatened with significant harm," said plaintiff's attorney Jay Tutchton of Earthjustice. "It is inexplicable why BLM is refusing to act in compliance with the court's orders."
If the court finds the BLM to be in contempt, the court can impose a fine upon the BLM, imprison agency personnel or both to coerce compliance with its lawful orders.
"Secretary Norton swears faithfully to execute the law, but from the outset she sends signals of contempt," said Dan Meyer, PEER's General Counsel in Washington DC. "Interior has conceded it is operating illegally; it is now time to enforce the law."