The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Clark County, NV, on Monday, Apr. 30, for not taking required steps to protect the desert tortoise, a threatened species, from grazing in southern Nevada. Specifically, the notice targets the agencies’ failure to carry out the mandatory terms and conditions of the Clark County Multiple Species Conservation Plan, Permit and Agreements.
"These plans, permits, and agreements have allowed the county and the cities to destroy up to 145,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat in exchange for promised conservation actions, mostly on federal public lands," says Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based Center ecologist.
He added that, "For years, the federal agencies and Clark County have allowed prolonged and extensive grazing by trespassing cattle in tortoise critical habitat in the Gold Butte area, south of Mesquite. The tortoise is protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act; grazing is a major threat to its survival."
Mrowka was referring to Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy's cattle that have grazed in the Gold Butte region for years. The BLM planned to round up the cattle on Apr. 11 and move them off the land. Those plans were put on hold at the last minute by BLM officials in Washington D.C.
“Enough is enough,” said Mrowka. “As of December 2011, more than 80,600 acres of desert tortoise habitat have been destroyed in Clark County under the pretense that the agreed-on steps were being taken to help tortoises in protected areas. But since 1998, grazing that was supposed to be eliminated at Gold Butte has gone on, despite two federal courts saying it should stop.”
In 1994 the Fish and Wildlife Service identified areas critical to the long-term survival of the desert tortoise; one was Gold Butte. In 1998 the BLM released its current “resource management plan,” which clearly indicates that grazing allotments in tortoise critical habitat would be closed, Mrowka stated.
"Also in 1998 Clark County bought all valid existing grazing permits for Gold Butte, paying $375,000 to retire them for the benefit of the tortoise," Mrowka added.
Bundy was the only rancher that did not sell his grazing permits. The BLM officially canceled them in 1994. That's about the time Bundy quit paying his grazing fees to the BLM and instead tried to pay them to Clark County who he says is the rightful administrator of the Gold
“While the federal agencies and county superficially attempted to meet the requirements, the reality is that because of their willful neglect, critical habitat has been steadily degraded by the trespass grazing,” said Mrowka. Recent surveys by the BLM have found 700 to 1,000 or more cattle in the Gold Butte area, an amount he says are 10 times above what was legally permitted before the tortoise’s protection. He contends that grazing reduces vegetation the tortoises need to live and spreads noxious weeds by disturbing the soil with hooves and fur that carry invasive seed.
Bundy said in an email to the Mesquite Citizen Journal that the 150 head allotment previously awarded to him under BLM grazing permits "is not accurate. Back in the 1970's it was changed to ephemeral range classification which means we match the cattle numbers with the amount of forage available. I have ran as many as 1,400 head in the 1970s. Also, my preemptive water rights are based on livestock beneficial use."
“We’ve tried to work with the BLM and county constructively to achieve a good resolution to this problem, but with the recent cancellation of a roundup of the trespass cattle, our only option for helping these tortoises is to take them to court,” said Mrowka.
In addition to BLM's notice to Bundy to remove his cattle, the federal agency also gave him 30 days to remove all range improvements he's made in the Gold Butte area over the years. That order was effective upon his receipt of the notice on Apr. 9.
Bundy contends that the federal government does not have jurisdiction over the land in dispute saying that it belongs to the State of Nevada and Clark County. He also says that "Over the past 15 years the Bundy Ranch has improved and developed a supreme genetic breed of cattle adapted and established upon this desert ranch. Many water improvements and developments for wildlife and livestock, forage improvements and fuel load reduction for fire control, and the habitat for livestock and wildlife have been enhanced. The public, hunters, campers, sightseers, off roaders, and all multi-users have enjoyed access and the beauty of their public lands."
The life-long rancher also said in an Apr. 24 letter to public officials that "I have not received an official letter from Clark County Sheriff Gillespie or BLM canceling the cattle seizure" or the trespassing notification and requirement to remove the range improvements.