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Environmental group calls for investigation into tortoise plan

An environmental advocacy group is calling for a federal investigation into the process of rewriting a recovery plan for the threatened desert tortoise.

The Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General Dec. 24 asking for a probe into possible meddling in the rewrite of the plan by former high-ranking political appointees.

The CBD cited a series of letters and e-mails between representatives of the QuadState County Government Coalition, a joint powers authority between counties in four western states, including San Bernardino County in California; and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald and former Assistant Secretary Craig Manson.

MacDonald resigned in May 2007, after an investigation by the Department of the Interior found that she had interfered in decisions on endangered species and leaked sensistive information to private groups. Since then, an inspector general’s investigation into 20 additional Endangered Species Act decisions made during MacDonald’s term found that she may have influenced 13 of them, and that she had support from Manson, according to a report released Dec. 15.

That investigation did not look at the revised desert tortoise plan. The draft plan was submitted for public comment in August.

QuadState has opposed land use restrictions in the tortoise protection areas, arguing that disease and predation were the major causes of decline in the tortoise populations. In 2003, the group threatened to sue the interior department, the FWS and the Bureau of Land Management over issues with the existing tortoise plan, which was completed in 1994.

In a series of communications to Manson, MacDonald, and various FWS staffers in 2004 and 2005, released as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request by the CBD, QuadState representatives complained about the processes involved in the writing the tortoise plan, particularly the lack of disease research, and asked for more stakeholder involvement in the new plan. There were also references to a briefing that included MacDonald and FWS staffers, but no notes from the briefing were released along with the other FOIA documents, CBD biologist Ileene Anderson said.

Anderson said the existing desert tortoise recovery plan included more specific actions to protect the tortoise than the revised plan does, including restrictions on grazing and off-road vehicles. She expressed concerns that the new plan relies on regional implementation teams rather than FWS scientists to implement the protections, which the Center believes may result in the process being controlled by stakeholders who want less stringent protections for the tortoise.

Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there was no meddling or influence by MacDonald or anyone else in the process of writing the revised plan. MacDonald met with FWS officials prior to the writing of the revised plan, he said, but the meeting was simply a briefing in which the FWS laid out its internal process for moving forward.

“There was no redirection, and she didn’t tell us to do anything differently,” Averill-Murray said.

Averill-Murray said the rewritten draft plan, which was completed and submitted for public comment in August, includes more provisions to monitor how effective the protection strategies have been. The rewritten plan also includes a new emphasis on the implementation teams, he said. Contrary to the CBD’s fears, Averill-Murray said the teams were intended to make sure the protection measures get implemented more effectively.

Representatives from the Office of the Inspector General could not be reached for comment Friday or Monday.

Contact the writer:

(760) 256-4123 or asewell@desertdispatch.com

 

Transfer of tortoises from Fort Irwin still on hold

FORT IRWIN • The transfer of desert tortoises from land slated for an expansion of Fort Irwin remains on hold.

The U.S. Army began moving tortoises from an area included in a 118,674-acre expansion of the post in spring of 2008, but announced in October that it would be putting further transfers on hold. At the time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray said that 80 to 90 translocated tortoises had died, out of the 411 that were being tracked. Before any more are moved, researchers must assess how many of the deaths stemmed from the animals being removed from their previous habitat.

Fort Irwin spokesman John Wagstaffe said Monday that the Bureau of Land Management is still evaluating the tortoise population data, and that the physical transfer of the tortoises is still on hold. In practical terms, he said the Army would not have been moving tortoises in the winter months in any case.

In comments submitted by the center to the fish and wildlife service on its draft revised tortoise recovery plan in November, the Center for Biological Diversity complained that the new draft plan fails to take into account issues that arose in the translocation of tortoises from Fort Irwin.


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