Sonoran Desert Tortoise Removed From Endangered Species Act Candidate List

Desert Tortoise [Photo courtesy Arizona Game and Fish]

After reviewing the best available scientific and commercial information, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detrmind on Monday that the Sonoran desert tortoise does not face the threat of extinction and will be removed from the Endangered Species Act candidate list. The UFWS used “robust scientific analysis of the desert tortoise status and current and future threats and concluded it does not face extinction now or in the foreseeable future.

The finding is due in part to long-term commitments to continued proactive efforts between federal agencies and Arizona Game and Fish Department, in identifying and addressing the primary threats to the tortoise.

“This is yet another example of the power of the ESA (ESA) in inspiring successful collaborations between states, landowners and federal agencies on behalf of America’s most imperiled wildlife,” said FWS director Dan Ashe. “When you combine this with other recent efforts culminating in not-warranted findings, such as the New England cottontail, greater sage-grouse and others, it is clear that the ESA is accomplishing its intended purpose in a flexible and collaborative way.”

Organizations coming together to protect the tortoise include the state of Arizona (the only U.S. state in the species’ range), Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, and National Park Service. Together, stakeholders protect an estimated 73% of potential habitat for the tortoise, with 55% of that protected by interagency agreements committing federal land managers to continuing conservation efforts.

“Our Species Status Assessment, a tool we did not have previously, showed that our federal land-management partners have been managing this species for more than 30 years, and doing it well,” said Steve Spangle, Arizona field supervisor for the Service. “With this track record, we are confident that the tortoise will continue to thrive. When we can conserve species without listing under the ESA, everybody wins, including the tortoise.”

Arizona State Representative Mark Finchem stated, “I’m pleased that USF&WS agrees with our state experts that our highly valued Sonoran Desert Tortoise is not endangered, but is in fact showing a robust reproductive capability that should ensure this species remains healthy and vibrant long into the future without unnatural human intervention.”

In evaluating the status of the Sonoran desert tortoise, the Service collaborated with experts from public and private sectors to complete a comprehensive status assessment that included advanced geospatial and population viability modeling and forecasting of the current and future threats to the tortoise. The review identified six primary threats: 1) altered plant communities; 2) altered fire regimes; 3) habitat conversion of native vegetation to developed landscapes (for agriculture, residential, etcetera); 4) habitat fragmentation; 5) human-tortoise interactions; and 6) climate change.

Varying combinations of the severity of these threats were projected over the next 100 years and evaluated.

In 2010 the Service determined that listing the tortoise was warranted. However, the more in-depth the status review employed today showed that there are presently 470,000 to 970,000 adult desert tortoises rangewide on approximately 38,000 square miles (24 million acres, 9.8 million hectares) of potential tortoise habitat (64% in the U.S. and 36% in Mexico). The tortoise has not experienced any significant reduction in its overall range and past population losses are presumed to be limited to urbanization in historical tortoise habitat. Of Arizona’s 1,279 square miles currently designated as urban, not more than five percent was potential tortoise habitat.
The Sonoran desert tortoise will continue to receive state protections as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” by the state of Arizona, and is listed under the Mexican equivalent to the Endangered Species Act as threatened. The collection of wild Sonoran desert tortoises in the United States remains prohibited.

The Sonoran desert tortoise occupies portions of western, northwestern, and southern Arizona in the United States, and the northern two-thirds of the Mexican state of Sonora. The species is most often associated with rocky, steep slopes and bajadas (a broad slope extending from the base of a mountain range out into a basin) in both Mojave and Sonoran Desert scrub habitat. Records also indicate Sonoran Desert tortoises in Madrean evergreen woodland, semi-desert grassland, interior chaparral, plains of Sonora, and Sinaloan thornscrub communities of Arizona. The Sonoran desert tortoise is now recognized as a distinct species from the Mojave desert tortoise, which has been listed under the ESA as threatened since 1989.

Congressman Paul Gosar praised the decision, calling it “good for Arizona’s economy, good for the future education needs of our children and good for the Sonoran desert tortoise.” Gosar advised that Arizona is “unfortunately, we aren’t out of the woods yet, as this finding will likely be challenged by extremist environmental groups whose real intentions are to stifle development. For far too long, unnecessary and misguided species listings, not based on science, have resulted in endless new regulations that harm our economic prosperity. These bureaucratic decisions, often in response to frivolous lawsuits filed by extremist self-interest groups, have caused considerable damage to education, grazing, agriculture, energy and housing interests as well as exacerbated wildfire mitigation challenges.”

“Local conservation efforts continue to yield positive results for threatened species, like the Sonoran desert tortoise, and incentivize local property owners, ranchers and developers to work with federal and state wildlife management agencies. I applaud and congratulate the State of Arizona for the role it played in ensuring today’s outcome. Congress must continue to make progress to ensure that local conservation efforts which invest significant resources to preserve species are rewarded,” continued Gosar. “Furthermore, it is far past time for Congress put an end to the never-ending cycle of baseless lawsuits pushed by far-left environmental groups which allow attorneys to get rich and cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year.”

Rob Bishop, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee recently reported that in the last 40 years more than 1,500 species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act but only 2% have been recovered.

On July 7, 2015, Congressman Gosar successfully passed an amendment to block the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing Sonoran desert tortoise as an endangered or threatened species. This rider was subsequently attached to the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2016. Of the potential 26.8 million acres that would have been designated for critical habitat due to such a listing, 15 million acres are in Arizona, 4.5 million acres of which are State Trust land. Approximately 9 million acres would be in Congressman Gosar’s district.

State Trust land revenues—currently enjoyed by 13 beneficiaries, of whom K-12 education is the largest proportional share of those monies—would have been severely impacted by designating this species as threatened or endangered. Unnecessary listings make acres of Trust land become less valuable for investment as they are burdened with a federal regulatory nexus resulting in less money flowing into education coffers.

The Sonoran desert tortoise is also of substantial concern to many different types of industry as its habitat falls within urban development corridors, as well as rural and agricultural landscapes. Listing the species as threatened or endangered would have negatively impacted commercial, housing and energy developers as well as the agriculture and grazing industry, specifically 273 different grazing allotments jeopardizing nearly six million acres used for livestock grazing.

Mining would have also suffered as the BLM listed 9,675 new mining claims from 1990 to 2002, 36% of which fall within Sonoran desert tortoise’s habitat. Any ground and vegetation-disturbing activities, including fire suppression activities and restorative treatments, would also have be negatively impacted by a listing decision for this species. Solar energy would also likely have been harmed as “large solar projects on desert floors” are considered a potential threat to the Sonoran desert tortoise.

Arizona State Representative Bob Thorpe stated, “I am very pleased by USFWS’ decision. However, I am confident that the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmentalists will continue to lobby the Federal government and use closed-door, back room ‘Sue and Settle’ in order to get their way. The environmentalists are not interested in the good science, they instead want control, which garners them press and financial contributions. I however personally love desert tortoises, including the 2 that I adopted over 20 years ago: Bigger and Digger.”

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