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The Slow and Steady Fight for the Sonoran Desert Tortoise

September 6, 2019

Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit yesterday demanding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do its job and protect the Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) from the devastating impacts of livestock grazing and climate change, among other increasing threats. We are represented in court by the Western Environmental Law Center.

The Sonoran desert tortoise is a recently-recognized distinct species of desert tortoise, separate from the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii).The Sonoran desert tortoise is well adapted to survive in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran desert, but unfortunately has not evolved to survive the onslaught of human-caused impacts. The population of tortoises has plummeted since the 1980s.

One of the biggest threats, livestock grazing, takes place on nearly seven million acres of federal public land identified as Sonoran desert tortoise habitat. Once every decade or so, abundant rains cause the desert to bloom, providing a cornucopia of desert tortoise forage. But then the BLM issues “ephemeral grazing permits” in addition to yearlong grazing permits, and thousands of livestock are turned out to decimate the abundance, denying the tortoises their periodic opportunity to thrive. Cows wildly outcompete the tortoise for food in the desert, consuming at least 800 lbs of forage each month compared to the estimated 12 lbs an adult male tortoise might eat per year. Livestock also trample tortoises, spread non-native, highly flammable, and less-nutritious invasive weeds.

The new lawsuit challenges the federal government’s denial of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the Sonoran desert tortoise in 2015. This “Not Warranted” finding responded to  a 2008 listing petition from WWP and WildEarth Guardians to protect the species, a 2010 lawsuit by us to compel the agency to follow its own deadlines, and interim years of the Service finding it was “warranted” for listing after it was placed on the candidate list in 2010.

For five years, it looked like the Service recognized the grave danger of extinction facing the Sonoran desert tortoise, recognizing the species as warranted for listing. The agency’s radical about-face in 2015—deciding that suddenly this species is going to be just fine despite increased threats to the tortoises and their habitat —is the definition of arbitrary and capricious and we cannot let this bad decision go unchallenged.

A copy of the complaint can be read online here.

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