For immediate release – June 1, 2009
Tortoise Goes to Court: Groups File Lawsuit Against Feds for Failing to Answer Request for Federal Protection
Nicole Rosmarino, Ph.D., WildEarth Guardians, 505-699-7404
Michael Connor, Ph.D., Western Watersheds Project, 818-345-0425
Arizona—June 1. Today, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians filed suit in federal court in Arizona against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) over the agency’s failure to decide whether it will consider listing the Sonoran desert tortoise population under the Endangered Species Act. An answer to the groups’ petition requesting federal protection of the Sonoran desert tortoise was due in January.
The petition shows that Sonoran desert tortoises have declined by 51 percent since 1987, or about 3.5 percent annually, in monitored areas throughout the animal’s range in Arizona. The groups alerted the Obama administration about the urgency of the Sonoran desert tortoise’s situation in January, but the administration has failed to act on behalf of the beleaguered tortoise.
“We are very disappointed that the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to the tortoise’s unfortunate race toward extinction,” stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians.
“We provided the Service with a detailed scientific analysis showing that Sonoran desert tortoise populations are in serious trouble and that the tortoise is faced with ever-increasing threats in its habitat. The Service needs to comply with the Endangered Species Act and act now to conserve and recover the tortoise,” stated Dr. Michael Connor of Western Watersheds Project.
The petition describes many threats that contribute to tortoise declines including disease, livestock grazing, climate change, urban sprawl, off-road vehicles, border patrol activities, a lack of adequate legal protections, and additional factors. Extended drought caused by climate change is a real concern. Biologists fear that human activities combined with environmental stress may be increasing susceptibility to two diseases that are now becoming increasingly common among Sonoran desert tortoise populations. Stated Connor, “The combined assault of threats such as development, cattle grazing, new roads, and disease are pushing Arizona’s unlisted desert tortoise populations closer and closer to extinction.”
The required 90-day finding triggers further agency actions. If the finding is positive, the Secretary is then required to undertake a review of the status of the species and to make a decision based on that review. If, as a result of that status review, the tortoise is listed under the Endangered Species Act, it would be protected from “take” (including killing and harassment) of individual tortoises, and the Service would have to develop a recovery plan to map out the steps that must be taken to reverse the population declines. The Service would also have to identify critical habitat required by the tortoise so that it can be protected to aid the conservation and recovery of the species.
“The Sonoran desert tortoise population has been slashed in half over the past two decades, but the administration is failing to act on its behalf. We’re forced to go to court to speed up federal safeguards for this rapidly declining reptile,” stated Rosmarino.
Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians are conservation organizations with offices throughout the western United States, including in Arizona.