Court ruling reduces milk-vetch habitat in dunes
Federal wildlife officials have released their final ruling that reduces the number of acres set aside as critical habitat at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area for the federally-protected Peirson’s milk-vetch plant.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Thursday that it is reducing the critical habitat for the threatened plant at the popular duning off-road site from 21,863 acres, down to 12,105 acres.
"This is a revised designation and it will become effective March 17," said USFW spokeswoman Jane Hendron. "Once it becomes effective it will supercede the original designation." However, the areas will remain off-limits to riders until a new management plan goes into effect.
Hendron said the the number of acres designated as critical habitat for the plant is being reduced by 9,758 acres, which is a 45 percent difference from the original 2004 designation. Last year's proposal designated 16,108 acres as critical habitat.
Environmentalists worry the decision could drive the plant closer to extinction, and splits apart the area that would be enforced for conservation of the plant and also fails to protect areas where the rare plant is currently growing.
“The Bush administration seems bent on driving this plant closer to extinction,” says Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The ongoing systematic reductions and now fragmentation of habitat is no Valentine’s Day gift for the struggling plant.”
The Peirson’s milk-vetch, which has purple-pink, pea-like flowers and produces large, inflated pods, that blow off the plant and sheds seeds, is only found in the United States in a small area of southern California’s Algodones Dunes.
The Algodones Dunes, also known as the Imperial Dunes, is a very popular off-roading destination, drawing hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts each year.
Another concern environmentalists have is that some areas that have been closed to off-roaders since 2000 would be reopened under the new Recreation Area Management Plan plan the Bureau of Land Management will now be developing.
While environmentalists are upset over the federal agency's ruling, off-roaders are calling it the right decision.
"Our main concern is that good science and data was used in making the decision and we are pleased it was," said Jerry Seaver, a co-founder of the American Sand Association. "It will finally allow the process to proceed."
Seaver added that it's the ASA's position that there shouldn't be any critically designated habitat because the milk-vetch shouldn't be designated as threatened.
"We have submitted a delisting petition to the USFW service," Seaver said. "It's the second time we have done this and are awaiting word on it."
The BLM, based on the USFW final critical habitat ruling, announced it will now begin revision of its Imperial Sand Dunes RAMP.
The RAMP, approved in 2005, was set aside by a federal court order in 2006 and remanded to BLM for further action, as was the previous FWS critical habitat designation.
"We now intend to publish a notice of intent to prepare a revised RAMP and a new environmental impact statement," said Steve Razo, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's California Desert District. "We hope to start that process within the next few weeks."
Razo added that BLM and USFW agreed to wait until the revised final critical habitat rule was completed before revising the RAMP. He also said the agency would be seeking public input while it developed the new management plan.
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 threatened under the Endangered Species Act, USFWS in 2003 proposed designating 52,780 acres in the dunes as critical habitat for the milk-vetch.
However, in 2004 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, the 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 federal court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to submit a new final critical habitat rule, which is what this latest revision is.
Hendron explained that as part of the reduction, critical habitat protections were removed from areas within the dunes known as the Gecko and Glamis management areas.
She explained that the USFWS was also required by law under the Endangered Species Act to prepare an economic analysis on the land whenever it designates critical habitat.
Hendron explained that the economic analysis helps determine what the economic impact from the loss of off-highway use will be if an area is made a critical habitat designation.
The economic impact from that analysis, Hendron said, can then be used to determine whether an area should remain designated critical habitat or not.
She went on to say the economic analysis indicated that keeping the designation would have meant a loss of millions in revenues spent in the area over the next 20 years.
Other areas were downsized to more accurately reflect the habitat boundaries to where the plants grow, she added.
James Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6854.