Today, wildlife advocates challenged the federal government’s denial of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the Sonoran desert tortoise in federal court. WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) decision because the agency failed to consider science on climate change and livestock grazing, among other factors.
“The law doesn’t allow the agency to assume the species is doing fine based on an absence of data,” said Matthew Bishop, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing the groups. “The agency must be forward in its thinking and apply the best available science.”
The Sonoran desert tortoise is a recently-recognized distinct species of desert tortoise, separate from the Mojave desert tortoise. Sonoran desert tortoises are found in desert scrub habitats in Arizona and Mexico, east and south of the Colorado River. In 2010, in response to a petition from the groups to list the species under the ESA, the Service found it “warranted” for listing but placed it on the candidate list, without protections, due to “higher priorities.” In 2015, the Service reversed its decision and determined the species “not warranted” for listing based mainly on a candidate conservation agreement that does not include binding commitments from the parties involved to take conservation actions, or any regulatory requirements to conserve the tortoise.
“These unique desert animals need legal protections to escape extinction,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “We’re taking the government to court because they failed to consider the best available science.”
“For five years the Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the grave danger of extinction facing the Sonoran desert tortoise,” said Cyndi Tuell, Arizona & New Mexico Director for Western Watersheds Project. “The agency’s radical about-face in 2015—deciding that suddenly this species is going to be just fine despite increased threats to the tortoises and their habitat —is the definition of arbitrary and capricious. The Service’s denial of protections will doom the tortoise, and therefore we must hold the agency accountable.”
The groups are seeking full and rigorous implementation of the ESA, one of the most successful conservation laws in the world. The law is especially important as a defense against the current extinction crisis. Species are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities, resulting in what some scientists term a “biological annihilation.” According to a recent United Nations report, over a million species are currently at risk of extinction.
The complaint asks the court to set aside the agency’s decision and ensure compliance with the ESA. “We are simply asking this federal agency to do its job – protect species on the brink of extinction from the ever-increasing threats caused by climate change, increased urbanization, and border militarization,” said Tuell.