October 2, 2007

Judge halts cattle plan

A final ruling could increase grazing in tortoise habitat

Matt Wrye, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

BARSTOW - To graze or not to graze? That's the issue a federal administrative judge confronted Monday when he halted a plan by the federal Bureau of Land Management to increase the number of cattle allowed to graze on thousands of acres near here.

The BLM wants to increase cattle-grazing to a former level on land recognized as critical habitat for the desert tortoise.

The land is located south of the 15 Freeway.

The plaintiffs - the Center for Biological Diversity and other California conservation groups - say the decision is a small victory.

But the lawsuit is still undecided, and bureau officials are confident they'll eventually prevail.

At issue is whether 130 more cows and a few horses should be allowed to graze on about 152,000 acres of private, state and federal land. The terms are part of the BLM's 10-year lease contract that was renewed in September with private ranchers and other lessees.

More than 100,000 acres in that land area is designated as the bureau's Desert Wildlife Management Area and lies within the California Desert Conservation Area.

The current allotment is 172 cows and a few horses. Only 25 head of cattle are grazing the land, according to Anthony Chavez, rangeland management specialist at the BLM's Barstow field office.

"This allotment is our biggest challenge because three quarters of the land is critical habitat for the desert tortoise," he said. "We have to strike a balance between all of this, and it's not an easy task."

The desert tortoise is listed as a threatened species with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Officials with the Center for Biological Diversity say more cows means less habitat for tortoises because cattle trample the underground burrows the reptiles live in.

"We have a number of concerns," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center. "There is direct competition for forage between cows and the desert tortoise. They're both herbivores and eat plants. They directly compete for food resources."

Both possibilities can ultimately end in death for desert tortoises, she said.

In 2000, the BLM settled a lawsuit with the center that temporarily reduced the cattle-grazing limit to 172 cows and a few horses until the lease was up for renewal.

The original cattle-grazing limit approved in the late 1980s was about 300 cows, Chavez said.

"(The center's) premise that we're increasing livestock use isn't exactly correct," Chavez said. "We're restoring measures ... prior to the settlement agreement. There is no real increase. Now the interim is over with and we're going back to our original permitted use."

The settlement ended with approval of the West Mojave Plan in 2006, which kept the temporary 172-cow cattle-grazing level the same, as long as forage was above 230 pounds per acre.

Another official on the plaintiffs' side a 130-cow increase is considerable, given that it's almost double the current amount allowed under the temporary settlement.

"If you impact the environment in the desert, it takes a long time for desert habitat to recover," said Michael Conner, California science director of the Western Watersheds Project.

"We're delighted that we got a stay," he added. "(The judge) looked at our appeal and decided that we have substantial evidence and are likely to prevail in a court case."

On the contrary, the BLM is "fairly confident" the judge will rule in its favor, Chavez said.

He noted a professional opinion sent to the BLM from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that says an increase in cattle grazing will not jeopardize desert tortoises or other critical habitat in the area.

Whatever the lawsuit's outcome, the BLM is prepared to implement the judge's orders, he said.