Letter to the Editor: Critically endangered tortoises betrayed by those paid to protect them

A desert tortoise browses in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Washington County, Utah, date not specified. A propose Northern Corridor would cut through the species' federally protected reserve. | Photo by John Kellam/Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

OPINION — The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently updated their internationally-prestigious “Red List” to uplist the Mojave desert tortoise to “critically endangered.”

Mojave desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Nov 2, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, St. George News

This is a sad but appropriate international recognition that Mojave desert tortoise populations generally continue their rapid declines and many may already be below the level for future viability. The mega-drought, expansion of cheatgrass fires, skyrocketing human development and other threats are cumulatively causing these declines.

Despite being listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act for over three decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and other governmental entities have collectively been unable or unwilling to stop these declines. While the government cannot control climate and drought per se, it can prevent or reduce many of the causes of the threats. Sadly, in many cases, it has failed to do so.

Here in southwest Utah’s Washington County, the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and Red Cliffs National Conservation Area apparently contain the highest density of remaining tortoise populations. This is in spite of the significant tortoise mortality and loss of habitat through many serious cheatgrass fire conversions. As such, Washington County can and should provide leadership in helping to stop and then reverse the decline in the county’s tortoise numbers.

Unfortunately, the county commissioners, in concert with FWS and BLM officials who should know better, have put the needs of developers, land speculators, and construction business owners well above the need for stronger tortoise conservation measures. They facilitated Trump-era approval for a destructive Northern Corridor Highway through the supposedly “protected” reserve and Red Cliffs National Conservation Area tortoise critical habitat. They gladly agreed to destroy or degrade $20 million worth of tortoise habitat acquired for permanent protection through use of federal Land and Water Conservation Fund monies.

Desert tortoise, Santa Clara, Utah, March 5, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

There were two feasible alternatives that would not cause this destruction, but the county and FWS and BLM officials “preferred” the destructive one. This Northern Corridor Highway decision is now the subject of pending litigation.

Tragically, the Northern Corridor Highway decision is merely a more prominent and visible example of a much larger and longer pattern. BLM recently approved a new road through one of its Areas of Critical Environmental Concern with tortoise habitat.

One or more feasible alternatives outside of the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern were not analyzed. BLM is also favoring a pipeline and storage tank development in a new Zone 6 that was ostensibly set aside to protect tortoises and help mitigate for the Northern Corridor Highway’s destruction.

In addition, BLM is considering approving incompatible uses (cemetery, city maintenance yard, communications tower) in its Santa Clara River Reserve in an area with tortoise habitat. The common denominators in these egregious examples are BLM’s failure to properly consider or analyze feasible less-damaging alternatives as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and FWS’s failure to hold BLM accountable under the Endangered Species Act.

Now county, BLM and FWS officials are discussing how they may change the boundaries of the reserve to build an electric substation to serve a massive new development. The applicant freely admitted that feasible alternatives exist outside of the current reserve boundaries. Despite this admission, BLM and FWS officials appear open to this change.

They are also discussing how they might amend the county’s new Habitat Conservation Plan, perhaps in ways that weaken it.

In short, from my local vantage point, I know that those government officials who are paid by taxpayers and supposed to be working toward tortoise recovery are actually aiding and abetting the cumulative human uses that advance the rapid tortoise population declines. This is not consistent with the intent of relevant federal laws and protective federal land designations, nor the best available scientific information. It is putting political expediency and developer pandering front and center.

The science is clear. The tortoises are suffering “death by a thousand cuts.” Much of the culpability for that lies with those in government not doing their jobs.

Time is running out for the tortoises. Will the Biden administration appointees work for long overdue agency reforms and accountability before it’s too late?

Submitted by RICHARD SPOTTS, St. George.

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

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