Federal officials look at less acres for milk-vetch
The root of the endangered Pierson's milk-vetch plant can penetrate deep into the ground in the dunes west of Yuma to anchor itself in the shifting sands.
Now those sands may be shifting even more if off-roaders get more places to ride.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a 60-day public comment period to receive comments on a proposed rule to revise the critical habitat areas for the threatened Pierson’s milk-vetch plant.
The newest proposal decreases the number of acres designated as critical habitat for the plant from 21,863 to 16,108 acres. The designation allows the government to manage the area several ways, including monitoring off-road vehicles' impact to the area and closing portions - or all - of the area to recreational vehicles.
The critical habitat areas being proposed include portions of the Buttercup, Gecko, Glamis, Mammoth Wash and Ogilby Management Areas within the sand dunes, as well as parts of the Adaptive Management Area and the North Algodones Wilderness.
Closures currently exist within some of these areas. The new proposal does not affect the current closures.
USFW spokeswoman Jane Hendron said until the new proposal is approved, the current designations established by the previous rules
remain in place.
For years conservationists have argued more protection is needed. Off-roaders, however, feel that their access to the popular recreation areas where they can still ride could be completely restricted.
The debate has centered on how much area needs to be set aside in the Imperial Sand Dunes - and closed to off-road vehicles - to ensure the plant's survival.
The milk-vetch plant has been at the center of several closures at the dunes over the years with lawsuits filed by conservation groups.
Due to those lawsuits, the federal government, which owns and controls the land, has been required each time to re-examine its methods for protecting the plant.
One way the federal government has done that is by designating certain areas as critical habitat. The purpose is to ensure federal agencies do not undertake or fund an activity that would destroy the habitat a species would require to live.
"These areas are determined to be essential to the conservation of the species," Hendron said. "But it's not the only area within the dunes where the plant is found."
The milk-vetch's history of controversy dates back roughly seven years, when conservation groups first sued the federal government, saying the plant was not adequately protected.
After years of studying the plant, which is listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act, USFWS in 2003 proposed designating 52,780 acres in the dunes as critical habitat for the milk-vetch.
The following year, however, when the agency published its final critical habitat designation, it designated only 21,863 acres as critical habitat for the plant.
This prompted the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and Desert Survivors to file another lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management and the USFW in 2005.
Then in September 2006, a court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to submit a new final critical habitat rule to the Federal Register for publication no later than Feb. 1, 2008, which is what this latest revision does.
Daniel Patterson, southwest director and ecologist for the group, called the Fish and Wildlife Service's new critical habitat redesignation "anti-science" and "disgraceful."
"To deny the milk-vetch of a critical habitat does nothing but keep the plant in danger of becoming extinct," Patterson said. "Critical habitat areas are important because it's the method used to stabilize and recover endangered species."
Patterson said the groups oppose the new reduction because it further decreases the protection of the plant.
Bob Gorman, the chairman of the board for the American Sand Association, said he thinks the latest proposal to revise the critical habitat is more reflective of the number of plants and its locations.
"It looks like it comes closer to matching where the plants grow, unlike the previous designation," Gorman said. "It also appears to be based more on statistical data collected over the years."
The USFWS is also required by law under the Endangered Species Act to prepare an economic analysis on the land whenever it designates critical habitat.
Hendron said the studies help determine what the economic impact from the loss of off-highway use will be if an area is made a critical habitat designation.
For the current proposal, the federal government expects a loss that could range anywhere from $1.02 million to $92.9 million during the next 20 years.
VOICE YOUR OPINION
-Comments may be submitted in writing to the Field Supervisor, Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office, 6010 Hidden Valley Road, Carlsbad, CA 92011, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
-Comments on the proposed rule will be accepted until Sept. 27.
James Gilbert can be reached at
email@example.com or 539-6854.