July 13, 2008

Lane Mountain milk-vetch center of controversy between environmentalists and military

The Press-Enterprise

The Lane Mountain milk-vetch lives on land where the Army wants to expand its tank-training grounds north of Barstow. Special to The Press-Enterprise.

It's a wispy plant with cream to purple flowers that grows only in a small pocket of the Mojave Desert.

The Lane Mountain milk-vetch is also in danger of going extinct. And like the threatened desert tortoise, the plant lives on land where the Army wants to expand its tank-training grounds north of Barstow at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. And like the lumbering reptile, the milk-vetch has become a sticking point between environmentalists and the military.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed last month to issue another critical habitat designation for the milk-vetch, a move that can restrict activities and development on land considered essential to the plant's survival.

The agreement was reached with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit against the federal wildlife agency after it decided the plant's habitat required no additional protection.

"That is basically biologically indefensible," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center.

A member of the pea family, the milk-vetch is a perennial that grows through shrubs and helps nearby plants thrive in desert soils by converting nitrogen in the air into usable fertilizers, Anderson said. Much of the plant's habitat is threatened by off-road vehicles, mining and development.

In this case, a habitat designation would not affect training or the Army's expansion plans, said John Wagstaffe, an Army spokesman. Troops from across the country go to Fort Irwin for monthlong tank-training stints.

Like many military bases, Fort Irwin has a natural resources management plan that spells out how the Army will prevent harm to any endangered species, he said.

"We believe that we're OK here," Wagstaffe said.

Connie Rutherford, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said no critical habitat was designated for the milk-vetch in 2005, partly because of concerns the accompanying maps would lead to vandals destroying the plants, or collectors picking them. Plus, she said, Fort Irwin's plan now sets aside two conservation areas for the milk-vetch and another area where no digging is allowed during training.

Anderson said those types of plans may conserve the plants that now exist but don't typically help a species to thrive and move off the endangered list like critical habitat is expected to do.

"Critical habitat identifies areas that federal biologists recognize as being essential for a species not to just survive, but to give them room to grow so they can recover," she said.

Endangered plant

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take a new look at designating critical habitat for the Lane Mountain milk-vetch.

2010: Proposed decision due

2011: Final decision due