USFWS to revisit Sonoran desert tortoise listing

By Laura Bies

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will revisit its 2015 decision not to list the Sonoran desert tortoise under the Endangered Species Act. Credit: USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will revisit its 2015 decision not to list the Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) under the Endangered Species Act as a condition of a court order. 

As the result of the settlement agreement between the USFWS and WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, who brought suit regarding the agency’s 2015 decision, the agency will immediately designate the tortoise as a candidate species and undertake a 12-month review to determine if ESA listing is warranted. 

The plaintiffs argued that the agency did not rely on the best available science in its decision not to list the tortoise and did not consider how climate change could affect the tortoise and its habitat. Now, the USFWS will have 18 months to complete its assessment and publish the results. 

The USFWS first determined in 2010 that listing the tortoise under the ESA was warranted, but the action was precluded by higher priorities. That assessment cited the conversion of Sonoran desert scrub to fire-prone grasslands as a major threat to the species. The decision that listing was warranted was reaffirmed by the agency in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. 

In 2015, the USFWS entered into a Candidate Conservation Agreement with state and federal partners, which put in place voluntary conservation measures for the tortoise. Later that year, the agency performed another species status assessment, in which it changed its approach from previous assessments to rely solely on habitat and habitat modeling, rather than population surveys— a change that prompted the lawsuit. 

Sonoran desert tortoises range south and east of the Colorado River, in Arizona and Mexico, and generally prefer rocky, steep slopes and bajadas (lower mountain slopes). 

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

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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