BLM withdraws cattle from tortoise habitat in California

The Bureau of Land Management reversed its recent decision to allow a rancher to move cattle through Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) habitat on federal lands in the California Desert Conservation Area.

The decision would have allowed up to 90 cattle to be moved across an area previously closed to grazing as part of a conservation agreement.

The Mojave desert tortoise was listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in 1990, due to a number of factors such as direct losses from predation, collection by humans, as well as habitat destruction. Recent studies indicate that the population of Mojave desert tortoises has been declining rapidly over the past few decades, although recent attempts to protect their habitat from off-road vehicle use with fencing seems to be helping to reverse the trend.

In July, the BLM approved the decision to allow a rancher to move cattle from a previously-retired, public land grazing allotment on the Mojave Desert side of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains to another area. A solar energy company had originally purchased the grazing rights for the allotment but then retired the land in order to mitigate potential harm to sensitive species.

The Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and Wilderness Watch immediately appealed the BLM decision and asked a federal court to reverse the decision. The BLM filed a notice with the court last week in response, indicating that the rancher will be asked to make other arrangements to move the cattle, rather than moving them across the former allotment.

In part, the decision is due to logistics of the legal challenge; the appeal by the environmental groups means that the BLM’s decision must be stayed for 45 days, or until Oct. 22. However, the agreement with the rancher would have required them to move the cattle off of the allotment before that date. Given that conflict, the BLM reversed its decision.

The environmental groups appealing the BLM’s decision, along with other groups, have challenged the BLM’s management of desert tortoises in various ways in recent years. They recently brought suit against both the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing that the West Mojave Route Network Project would harm threatened and endangered species by allowing off-road vehicle use and cattle grazing in their habitat.

Read TWS’ Standing Position on Threatened and Endangered Species in the U.S. and Position Statement on the U.S. Endangered Species Act

Header Image: A recent decision will prevent cattle from moving through Mojave desert tortoise habitat in California. Credit: USFWS