January 5, 2014

Mohave County may join tortoise coalition

A wild desert tortoise photographed during the summer of 2009 east of the Hualapai Mountains. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

Kim Steele
Kingman Daily Miner

KINGMAN - The Mohave County Board of Supervisors has been asked to consider joining forces with other counties to push for the removal of the desert tortoise from the endangered species list.

The Board recently received a letter from Steve Sisolak, a member of the Clark County Board of County Commissioners, which includes Las Vegas, seeking to gauge interest among the 12 counties affected by the desert tortoise's protected status. Those counties include three in Nevada, one in Utah, one in Arizona and seven in California.

The Board will consider Sisolak's request during a meeting at 9:30 a.m. today in the Mohave County Administration Building, 700 W. Beale St.

Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service couldn't be reached for comment.

"It's been more than 20 years since the desert tortoise was listed as endangered and as far as I know, the federal government hasn't saved any," said Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, District 3. "They keep placing restrictions on us, but they won't share any of their information. I'm all for saving the desert tortoise, but they've got to tell us something. Right now, we've got nothing that shows anything they're doing is helping them."

In his letter, Sisolak noted that Clark County has been a dedicated partner in the protection, conservation and recovery of the desert tortoise since it was added to a list of endangered species on an emergency basis in 1989 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sisolak said Clark County has done its part to minimize and mitigate impacts from urban development on the tortoise, spending about $16 million since 2001.

"Clark County has watched patiently as the federal government has spent more than $100 million on tortoise recovery efforts but is unable to report what progress, if any, has been made towards the recovery and delisting of the desert tortoise," wrote Sisolak. "If the FWS and federal land management agencies had properly invested the $100 million available and implemented effective recovery actions since 1989, the tortoise would presumably be on the cusp of recovery."

Sisolak added the FWS suggests that in order to recover the tortoise, it has to measure stable or increasing populations for a generation of tortoises, which is about 25 years. Instead, Sisolak wrote, the FWS released a revised recovery plan in 2011 that suggests it will take another $159 million and another 25 years to recover and delist the tortoise.

With virtually no progress to report in the first 25 years, questioned Sisolak, why would anyone have confidence that after another quarter of a century and $159 million, the results would be any different? Sisolak said the FWS estimates there are 295,000 tortoises across the 26,000 mile area of the 12 counties, and based on that number, it would seem reasonable that FWS declare the desert tortoise recovered and remove it from the list of federally threatened and endangered species.

Johnson said Mohave County has been forced to make adjustments to accommodate the desert tortoise, although he wasn't sure of the financial impact of those changes over the years. Mohave County Administrator Michael Hendrix also couldn't put a price tag on how much the county has spent. Johnson said the cost for Mohave County has been much less than that of the counties in Utah, Nevada and California, which have more tortoises.

Johnson also is chairman of the Quadstate Local Government Authority, which is composed of counties from Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. It provides a multi-county voice on federal natural resource management and public land issues primarily in the Mojave Desert region, including the desert tortoise.

Mohave County restrictions have included placing special fencing around various areas to keep the tortoises away. Also, cattle in the north end of the county were moved to keep them from stepping on the tortoises. That caused other problems, said Johnson, because the cattle ate invasive grasses there, and after their removal, those grasses overran the species eaten by the tortoises.

Also, the county is banned from doing road grading during tortoise mating and breeding season because it may endanger them. And Johnson said Mohave County has been forced to hire turtle herders from time to time to keep them off the roads.