November 7, 2010

Acres may be fenced off for protection of endangered plant

By KAREN JONAS, staff writer
Barstow Desert Dispatch

NEAR FORT IRWIN • About 14,000 acres of land near Fort Irwin could be fenced off and closed to off-roading in order to protect an endangered plant if a proposed critical habitat plan is approved.

The Lane Mountain milk-vetch is a perennial plant in the pea family that grows only in the west Mojave Desert north of Barstow. Fish and Wildlife Services is proposing to designate a total of 14,069 acres for protection of the plant in two separate areas.

Some off-roading enthusiasts are upset that the land is being fenced off and believe that the desert should not be closed to off-roading.

“Off-roading is the way of the desert,” said Mike McCain of Barstow. “That’s how you get around.”

McCain is a member of the American Motorcyclist Association and has put in a complaint about the potential critical habitat area. He also said that he has found the milk-vetch plant in a different area that will not be considered part of the critical habitat area.

The public comment period on the economic impact of the critical habitat proposal will be open until Dec. 3.

About 21 percent of the land is privately owned, 70 percent is owned by the BLM and 9 percent is owned by the Department of Defense. The designation of critical habitat would prohibit activities that could endanger the milk-vetch plant, including off-roading, surface mining and wind energy development.

The BLM is already in the process of fencing off part of the land in order to prevent people from off-roading in the area. The agency has been working on the fencing for over a year and should be completed with the most critical areas by the spring, according to William “Mickey” Quillman, resource supervisor for the Barstow field office of the BLM.

Quillman said that the fencing is being put in place where excessive off-highway vehicle use has been occurring and that it is being done as funding permits. The area is already designated limited use, which means that vehicles can only travel on designated paths, but there are some who drive across the restricted areas despite the rule.

Most of the year, the milk-vetch exists in a dormant state below the surface, said Ileene Anderson, biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. The growth period for the plant occurs in the late winter or early spring, which is also a popular time for off-roading.

Anderson said that the milk-vetch was important because it lives in such a restricted area.

“It’s a plant species that has a very, very small distribution on the planet,” said Anderson. “It’s a perennial plant that stays around for a number of years.”

Lois Grunwald, a spokesperson for the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, said that an endangered species could be an indication that the ecosystem is in trouble.

Anderson also said that the recent milk-vetch surveys show that more plants are dying than sprouting and it was unclear why the plants were doing poorly in spite of adequate rainfall.