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Know the West

Off-roaders smash science


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Sound science goes sour."

Three years ago, a federal court settled a disagreement between the Bureau of Land Management, conservationists and off-road vehicle groups over the fate of a short-lived perennial plant in the pea family (HCN, 12/18/00: Feds fight chaos in a desert playground). That settlement temporarily closed 49,000 acres of the Algodones Dunes in California to protect the Peirson’s milk-vetch from off-road traffic, while leaving 70,000 acres open to ATVs, motorbikes and dune buggies.

But the compromise was short-lived. When Michael Pool, the California state director of the BLM, learned that biologists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Carlsbad office were planning to issue a “jeopardy” opinion that would have permanently closed the 49,000 acres, he fired off a letter to their bosses in the California-Nevada Operations Office.

In his August 6, 2002, letter, Pool wrote that the BLM did not believe a jeopardy opinion was warranted, and added that, if issued, it would disrupt the agency’s schedule to finish a management plan for the dunes. Although Fish and Wildlife studies had found that off-road traffic was the biggest threat to the milk-vetch’s survival, Pool cited a report — funded by the American Sand Association, an off-road group — which claimed the agency’s counts of the milk-vetch were skewed by poor weather.

Eight months after receiving Pool’s letter, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a “no jeopardy” opinion, and allowed the BLM to re-open the 49,000 acres to off-road use.

None of the biologists were available for comment, but Jane Hendron, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, says the BLM will initiate intensive monitoring to make sure plant numbers don’t drop below 50 percent of the estimated 2000 population.

But Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity says there’s no funding for that kind of monitoring. “It’s criminal behavior,” says Patterson. “Citizens exercise their rights (by filing a lawsuit), the courts agree with the citizens, and the Bush administration ignores the Endangered Species Act again.”