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Desert Tortoise Put on Endangered Species List; Ecologists Hail Move

June 23, 1989|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

LONE PINE, Calif. — In a long-awaited move heralded by environmentalists, the California Fish and Game Commission on Thursday added the imperiled desert tortoise to the state's list of threatened species.

Despite stiff opposition from recreational desert users and ranchers whose sheep and cattle graze on tortoise habitat, commissioners agreed with its own biologists and a coalition of activists that the reptile will vanish without help from the humans who triggered its dramatic decline.

The commission's 3-2 vote was greeted with cheers and whistles from many sign-bearing supporters in the audience of about 120. But critics predicted that the action would seriously restrict public access to the desert while doing little to safeguard the gentle reptile.

"This decision has the potential of kicking us out of the desert forever," said Jay Wilson, vice president of the California Wool Growers Assn. "Our people have been grazing out there for 200 years. This is our heritage."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 25, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
In some Friday editions, a headline incorrectly stated that the desert tortoise had been added to the state's endangered species list. In fact, the tortoise is now considered a threatened species, a less serious designation.

Steve Kuehl, vice president of the California Off-Road Vehicle Assn., said his organization will sue to block the listing

"This is war," Kuehl said.

Listing of the tortoise will increase funds available for its protection and recovery, permit fencing of highways on which tortoises are frequently killed and require that state agencies conducting projects in the desert take measures to shield the reptile from harm. But Thursday's action will not provide the more stringent protections available under federal law.

"It is a victory for conservation . . . but federal (endangered species) listing and continuing work on tortoise recovery are still the best hope for survival of the species," said Richard Spotts, California representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

Pete Bontadelli, director of the Department of Fish and Game, disagreed with those who said the move will inhibit the activities of off-road vehicle users and private developers.

"People on both sides of the issue see this as a major roadblock," he said, but state officials actually will have little control over much of the tortoise habitat, most of which is owned by the federal government and private interests.

Environmentalists have for years pressed both the commission and federal authorities to take action to protect the tortoise, which can live for 90 years and is California's official state reptile.

Studies show tortoise populations have dropped 90% in the last 50 years, and in the western Mojave Desert their numbers have declined 50% during the last seven years alone. Once, there were 1,000 tortoises per square mile in some regions. Today, an estimated 60,000 remain, scattered across four states.

Reasons for their decline are many, but all relate to humans, state Department of Fish and Game biologist Jim St. Amant said. Many tortoises are illegally grabbed by poachers for use as food or pets, while others are killed by target shooters or by cars traveling highways that crisscross its habitat.

Competition with cattle and sheep, which graze on the same perennial grasses favored by the tortoise, has also played a role.

And biologists say off-road vehicle users can be another lethal foe, crushing the tortoises or collapsing burrows where the reptiles must retreat for shelter from the blistering desert sun.

Destruction of the burrows, St. Amant said, often is fatal "because after the tortoise goes out to feed in the morning, he has to get back underground quick or he'll cook out there."

In addition, predators have multiplied. Ravens--whose numbers have soared in the western Mojave as human intrusion has brought trash upon which the bird feeds--prey on baby tortoises, whose fingernail-thin shell makes them easy targets. St. Amant said ravens are now going after adult tortoises, which "could indicate there aren't any juveniles left."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which controls much of the reptile's habitat, launched a program to poison and shoot ravens earlier this year. But the killings were halted, at least temporarily, by a judge after opposition from the Humane Society of the United States.

On top of these threats to the tan- and gray-shelled creature, a new enemy has surfaced. A respiratory ailment that has no known cure has stricken huge numbers of tortoises, hastening their decline. Biologists suspect the disease--common among tortoises in captivity--was introduced by a sick pet tortoise released into the wild.

The epidemic prompted a coalition of environmentalists to urge Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan to order an emergency listing of the species. The request for the 240-day listing, which would give federal officials time to consider permanent protection, is under consideration.

Environmentalists say Thursday's action is not likely to curb development and recreational use of the desert.

"Fish and Game can't do much about land management, which is what has made the tortoise's situation so desperate," said Donald Moore, president of the Kerncrest chapter of the Audubon Society.

"What we really need is some help from Washington."

Nevertheless, ranchers and off-road vehicle users predict that the listing will allow the state "to regulate us to death," as Frank Munoz of the Kern County Wool Growers Assn. put it.

Paco Iturriria, a Mojave rancher since 1952, said the desert grasses that his 12,000 sheep graze on in springtime often account for 80% of their annual feed. If he is unable to continue leasing the rangelands, his livelihood will be jeopardized, Iturriria said.

Dana Bell, a member of the American Motorcyclists Assn., said the listing will do little for the tortoise while restricting desert users' rights.

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