September 16, 2008

Wildlife service believes Fort Irwin plant not endangered

By Abby Sewell, staff writer
Desert Dispatch

FORT IRWIN — Fish and wildlife officials recommended downgrading the endangered status of a rare plant found primarily in and around Fort Irwin.

After completing a five-year review of 16 endangered species in California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended Sept. 10 that the status of the Lane Mountain milk-vetch be changed from endangered to threatened.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group that sued the fish and wildlife service in 2007 over its 2005 decision not to designate any critical habitat for the plant, immediately voiced objections to the recommendation.

“The populations are continuing to decline, and it seems antithetical to the Endangered Species Act when you have a species that is listed as endangered and is continuing to decline, that you’re going to downlist it to a less-protected status,” center biologist Ilene Anderson said.

She called the recommendation a politically motivated move on the part of the Bush administration.

Fish and Wildlife Services spokeswoman Lois Grunwald said the five-year review showed that there were considerably more plants in a slightly larger area than officials had believed when the milk-vetch was first listed as endangered in 1998. The Army found 5,700 plants during surveys in 2001.

However, surveys since then have showed the number of plants declining in some areas, according to the five-year summary, which noted that the milk-vetch is sensitive to changes in weather patterns.

Grunwald said that because of the increased numbers since 1998 and because Fort Irwin and the BLM have conservation plans for most of the milk-vetch’s habitat, the species does not appear to be in imminent danger of extinction.

In practical terms, Grunwald said that downlisting a plant species from endangered to threatened does not impact its legal protections.

Downlisting also would not affect an agreement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity that came out of a lawsuit settlement, requiring the wildlife service to reconsider designating areas of critical habitat for the milk-vetch, Grunwald said.

The fish and wildlife service has not yet written a proposed rule that would open up the process necessary to change the plant’s status and Grunwald said the agency has no immediate plans to do so.

Lane Mountain milk-vetch

  • The Lane Mountain milk-vetch is an endangered plant species in the pea family that is found only in an approximately 20-mile strip of land north of Barstow, with about half the habitat on Fort Irwin and half on Bureau of Land Management lands.

  • The milk-vetch improves the quality of desert soil by converting nitrogen from the air into a natural fertilizer.