Federal officials have threatened to fine or revoke the grazing permits of two ranchers for violating an order to remove their cattle from sensitive desert lands.
The action comes nearly three weeks after the Bureau of Land Management enacted provisions of a landmark legal settlement with environmental groups to remove cattle from about 450,000 acres of the Mojave Desert.
A spokeswoman for the federal bureau said two ranchers are violating the federal order by continuing to let their cattle graze on the restricted tortoise habitat.
"I would characterize it as serious," said spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian in Sacramento. "We are putting them on notice. . . . The bottom line in all this is that it's our goal to protect public lands."
Still, Bedrosian said the agency will continue working with the ranchers to make them comply, and said no fines or other federal actions are imminent.
One of the ranchers, David Fisher, has been allowed to use about 115,000 acres of federal land southeast of Barstow. He disputed several reports by officials that his cattle are still on the restricted lands. "We're doing everything we can to comply," Fisher said.
If some cattle did stray into those areas, he said, there was no way to stop them because the government land is not fenced off.
Federal rangers said they spotted Fisher's cattle in the restricted areas three times between Sept. 14 and Sept. 21, and have sent two letters ordering him to remove the livestock. "This is a very serious matter," BLM Field Manager Tim Read wrote to Fisher in a Sept. 25 federal order. "Continued noncompliance could lead to temporary or permanent suspension of permitted use authorized under your grazing lease in whole or in part."
Fisher contends that the new restrictions are unconstitutional. "What they've done is very blatantly taking our property, and this is our livelihood," he said.
Fisher said he plans to meet with federal officials next week to discuss the dispute, but doesn't plan to move any of his cattle.
The other rancher whose cattle have been ordered off the sensitive land could not be reached for comment.
"We don't believe these guys are going to make any effort to comply," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Patterson said that if federal officials do not act soon, his organization will go to court and attempt to have the government held in contempt.
"At the very least, we would expect them to start moving to impoundment of these cattle now," Patterson said. "Not doing anything violates the court order."
The land protection deal settled a lawsuit filed last year by several environmental and public advocacy groups seeking to preserve the fragile desert terrain. The new restrictions affect habitat that is home to the tortoise.