Cattle make way for tortoises in the Mojave

Closures could spark a modern-day range war

  • DECLINING: Desert tortoise

    Todd Esque, USGS
 

JOHNSON VALLEY, Calif. - The glossy brown cow looked a little lonely and confused on this particular day amid the Joshua trees, and for good reason: She was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Anthony Chavez, a rangeland management specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, took some photos of the errant bovine, filled out a report, and continued searching for other cattle trespassing on this portion of the Rattlesnake Canyon grazing allotment.

Can cattle trespass on a grazing allotment? It's now possible in California's Mojave Desert, where on Sept. 7 the Bureau of Land Management set aside 427,000 acres of federal grazing land for the threatened desert tortoise. The closure, which affects eight grazing allotments, runs until Nov. 7, then resumes again from March 1 to June 15.

It is the first time grazing on these high desert lands has been restricted to protect the tortoise, and it means weeks of patrolling by Chavez and other BLM staffers to ensure compliance by the eight affected ranchers. So far, full compliance remains just a goal, as some of the ranchers struggle to accept a dramatic change in their routine.

"It's a burden on every one of the ranchers," says Ron Kemper, who has had to remove cattle from about one-third of his 150,000-acre Horsethief Springs allotment. "We really don't believe that we're being treated fairly."

Tortoises losing the race

Environmental groups say the closures are critical to protecting the desert tortoise, which has declined dramatically in the Mojave in recent years. The seasonal closures are part of a legal settlement between the Bureau of Land Management and three environmental groups: the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The environmentalists' March 2000 lawsuit alleged that the agency failed to follow the Endangered Species Act in managing grazing on tortoise habitat.

Kristin Berry, a federal biologist and an expert on the desert tortoise, says grazing is one of several key factors in the decline of the tortoise. Cattle, she says, outcompete the tortoise for essential native vegetation, and they introduce and spread less-nutritious exotic plants. Sometimes their hooves crush tortoises and flatten the animals' burrows. Cattle reduce shrub cover on already-sparse desert grazing allotments, making it easier for predators like ravens to snatch young tortoises in the open.

Berry says the federal recovery plan for the tortoise recommends complete removal of grazing animals from tortoise habitat; the seasonal closures are a compromise aimed at protecting the tortoise and keeping ranchers in business. Even though the normal density of cattle on the Mojave allotments is very low, she says, it is vital to get them out of tortoise habitat, at least periodically.

"There's no place (in California) I can point to where we have a real robust, thriving population (of tortoises)," says Berry, who has studied the tortoise since 1971.

In some areas of the Mojave, she says, tortoise densities have dropped from hundreds per square mile to as few as 20 in the last seven years. Other contributors to the decline include off-road vehicle use and warfare training exercises on the Mojave's vast military bases.

Though the grazing closures exclude fewer than 500 cattle for just five months of each year, the eight affected ranchers have mounted a determined counteroffensive. The first closure was supposed to start March 1, but the BLM held off when the ranchers appealed. This brought a reprimand from federal Judge William Alsup, who oversaw the settlement negotiated in January and warned the BLM not to skip the Sept. 7 closure.

The Department of Interior then appointed administrative law Judge Harvey Sweitzer to hear the ranchers' appeal. On Aug. 24, after two weeks of hearings, Sweitzer upheld the grazing limits but said BLM failed to consult adequately with the ranchers.

To appease Sweitzer and meet the Sept. 7 court deadline, the BLM scheduled two days of meetings with the ranchers. But the ranchers failed to show up, saying they didn't receive adequate notice. Joined by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, they filed a new appeal on Sept. 11, asking the Department of Interior's Board of Land Appeals for a stay and another review.

An endangered heritage

BLM officials say at least one leaseholder is refusing to comply with the fall range closure. Other violations, such as the lonely cow in Rattlesnake Canyon, probably represent strays.

Rancher Kemper says complying with the closures is not as easy as it sounds. Most of the desert grazing allotments cover 100,000 acres or more and contain few natural barriers. The only way to control cattle in this environment, Kemper says, is to restrict water access and install new fencing. But the latter is not practical: He estimates it would cost $340,000 to fence the tortoise closure area on his allotment.

County officials say the grazing restrictions could slash $1.5 million from their annual budget. This includes increased law-enforcement costs, as the ranchers normally provide additional eyes and ears in remote areas for the sheriff's department.

"Ranching has been a part of the county's history since the beginning," says Brad Mitzelfelt, chief of staff for San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus. "It's the feeling of the board - or at least Supervisor Postmus - that it's a part of our heritage that should be protected."

Some observers fear a modern-day range war like those that have erupted in New Mexico and Nevada in recent years. County officials have ratcheted up the tension by canceling cooperative agreements with the BLM for law enforcement and illegal dumping. And Sheriff Gary Penrod warned in a letter earlier this year that BLM actions may result in "possible violent range disputes."

Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity calls such comments "incredibly irresponsible." Unless the ranchers comply, environmentalists say, they'll ask for an injunction to remove cattle from all critical tortoise habitat, which would close some allotments entirely.

"They need to remember, this is not their land," says Patterson. "They're grazing the public land for their private gain, and it's not too much to ask them to help the tortoise."

Gail O'Neill, resources branch chief in the local BLM office, isn't worried about a range war. But she does worry about the impact on her staff, which is spending weeks away from normal duties to ensure that cattle stay out of tortoise habitat.

"I'd say there's been some tension, but it remains courteous," she says. "We fully expect the ranchers are going to comply. We're going to go through our administrative procedures, and someday get this worked out."

 

Matt Weiser writes from Yucca Valley, California.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Center for Biological Diversity, 520/623-5252, www.biological- diversity.org;
  • Bureau of Land Management California Desert District, 909/697-5200, www.ca.blm.-gov/cdd/lawsuit.html
  • San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, www.co.san-bernardino.ca.us/bos.htm; First District Supervisor Bill Postmus, 909/387-4830 or 760/843-2760.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Matt Weiser