January 22, 2009

Saving the tortoise

Feds sure have spent a lot of money over the years

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Back in 1973, Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act. Fifteen years later, someone looked around and realized there was no way to do a cost-benefit analysis on how much was being spent to "protect" the proliferating list of weeds and bugs in question, so Congress in 1988 added a section to the ESA requiring an annual species-by-species expenditure report.

And about eight years later, the appropriate federal agencies finally got around to issuing them.

And which endangered species do you suppose these government agencies spend the most tax dollars "protecting"? The grizzly bear? The bald eagle?


The 2006 report, the latest released by the Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates $884 million were directly spent "protecting" more than 1,100 species on the list. But there's a wide disparity in how money is doled out.

The top recipients have been salmon in the Pacific Northwest and the Steller sea lion. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on those species since reporting began in 1996.

The pallid sturgeon, a prehistoric-looking freshwater fish, topped the 2006 list at $39 million. But a mere $6 was expended "protecting" a rare Utah herb called the Barneby reed-mustard, which sounds like it might be tasty in a salad.

Another critter ranking high on the list of money spent by state and federal agencies trying to keep it from extinction, according to an Associated Press analysis of the past 11 years of available data, is Southern Nevada's own desert tortoise. From 1996 to 2006, more than $93 million was spent on managing the long-lived reptile, The AP figures. That's more than was spent on the grizzly, the gray wolf or the bald eagle.

There are some odd things about the case of the Mojave Desert tortoise, though. For one thing, its "critical habitat" stretches across 9,600 square miles. Jurisdictions include four states, seven military installations, four national parks and scores of federal, state and county agencies.

For another, for a supposedly "threatened" species, there seem to be a whole lot of them out there. Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Reno, estimates there are 111,000 to 187,000 adult desert tortoises in areas designated as critical habitat.

Government agencies spent $10.5 million on the desert tortoise in 2006 and more than $11 million in 2007 -- on monitoring, fences to keep them from wandering onto highways, studies on a respiratory disease and stacks of long-range plans.

Problem is, no one's sure if it's done more good than harm.

One of the most ambitious plans was to relocate 770 of the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management land to make way for the expansion of Fort Irwin, a national military training center near Barstow, Calif.

The move started last March, but was put on hold in October after most of the tortoises "relocated" to date -- about 90 of them -- were promptly killed and eaten by coyotes.

"Nobody thought it was going to be an inexpensive proposition," says Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, the radical and lawsuit-prone environmental outfit. "But the desert tortoise is a bellwether for the health of our deserts."

One wonders if the Fort Irwin tortoises wouldn't rather be alive than serve as somebody's "bellwether."

One of the region's few surviving ranchers, Cliven Bundy, argues that when federal officials required a comprehensive tortoise population survey before allowing the Kern River gas pipeline to be run through Southern Nevada a few years back, they discovered by far the densest concentrations of tortoises were not out in the dry and barren desert (though there were somewhat more where cattle grazed), but right here in the suburban Las Vegas Valley.

What if it turns out tortoises love lawns and golf courses and other man-made improvements to the environment? What would that do to the theory that mankind and his "development" are some of the things from which the desert tortoise needs to be "protected"?