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Tortoise Goes to Court: Groups File Lawsuit Against Feds for Failing to Answer Request for Federal Protection

Desert TortoiseArizona—June 1. Today, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians filed suit in federal court in Arizona against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) over the agency’s failure to decide whether it will consider listing the Sonoran desert tortoise population under the Endangered Species Act. An answer to the groups’ petition requesting federal protection of the Sonoran desert tortoise was due in January.

The petition shows that Sonoran desert tortoises have declined by 51 percent since 1987, or about 3.5 percent annually, in monitored areas throughout the animal’s range in Arizona. The groups alerted the Obama administration about the urgency of the Sonoran desert tortoise’s situation in January, but the administration has failed to act on behalf of the beleaguered tortoise.

“We are very disappointed that the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to the tortoise’s unfortunate race toward extinction,” stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians.

“We provided the Service with a detailed scientific analysis showing that Sonoran desert tortoise populations are in serious trouble and that the tortoise is faced with ever-increasing threats in its habitat. The Service needs to comply with the Endangered Species Act and act now to conserve and recover the tortoise,” stated Dr. Michael Connor of Western Watersheds Project.

The petition describes many threats that contribute to tortoise declines including disease, livestock grazing, climate change, urban sprawl, off-road vehicles, border patrol activities, a lack of adequate legal protections, and additional factors. Extended drought caused by climate change is a real concern. Biologists fear that human activities combined with environmental stress may be increasing susceptibility to two diseases that are now becoming increasingly common among Sonoran desert tortoise populations. Stated Connor, “The combined assault of threats such as development, cattle grazing, new roads, and disease are pushing Arizona’s unlisted desert tortoise populations closer and closer to extinction.”

The required 90-day finding triggers further agency actions. If the finding is positive, the Secretary is then required to undertake a review of the status of the species and to make a decision based on that review. If, as a result of that status review, the tortoise is listed under the Endangered Species Act, it would be protected from “take” (including killing and harassment) of individual tortoises, and the Service would have to develop a recovery plan to map out the steps that must be taken to reverse the population declines. The Service would also have to identify critical habitat required by the tortoise so that it can be protected to aid the conservation and recovery of the species.

“The Sonoran desert tortoise population has been slashed in half over the past two decades, but the administration is failing to act on its behalf. We’re forced to go to court to speed up federal safeguards for this rapidly declining reptile,” stated Rosmarino.

WWP Joins Northern Rockies Wolf Delisting litigation to prevent Salazar's removal of Endangered Species Act protection from wolves


Missoula, Montana— Conservation groups today filed their challenge to the removal of Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Idaho and Montana. On April 2, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped the wolves from the Endangered Species list, finalizing an effort launched by the Bush administration to deprive the wolves of legal and habitat protections, thus allowing state management and hunting. The challenged delisting decision is the second time in a year the federal government has removed federal protections for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, successfully sued to get the protections reinstated in July 2008.

Delisting wolves means they will be subject to state-sponsored wolf “control” efforts and hunting unless stopped by legal action. Idaho and Montana plan to allow hundreds of wolves to be shot.

The decision to lift wolf protections comes as Yellowstone National Park wolves declined by 27 percent in the last year – one of the largest declines reported since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. The northern Rockies wolf population also has not achieved a level of connectivity between the greater Yellowstone, central Idaho, and northwest Montana areas that is essential to wolves’ long-term survival. In delisting wolves, the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized Idaho and Montana to reduce their wolf populations from a current population of roughly 1,500 wolves to only 200-300 wolves in the two states.

Wolves will remain under federal control in Wyoming because a federal court previously ruled that Wyoming’s hostile wolf management scheme leaves wolves in “serious jeopardy.” The Fish and Wildlife Service in the recent past held that a state-by-state approach to delisting wolves was not permitted under the Endangered Species Act, including in its earlier decision to not delist wolves without Wyoming’s inclusion. In the challenged delisting decision, the federal government flip flopped from its earlier position.

In addition to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have refused to make enforceable commitments to maintain viable wolf populations within their borders. On the very day the first wolf delisting took effect in March, 2008, Idaho Governor Butch Otter signed a law allowing Idaho citizens to kill wolves without a permit whenever wolves are annoying, disturbing, or “worrying” livestock or domestic animals. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission established rules that would have allowed 428 wolves to be killed in 2008 alone had the court not returned wolves to the endangered species list. Montana also authorized a fall wolf hunt.

Earthjustice represents Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Project, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.


“We look forward to celebrating the transfer of wolves to state management but not until a federal delisting rule is developed that ensures the future of wolves in the region. This plan ignores current science on what wolves need to maintain a healthy population over the long term. It also ignores the hundreds of thousands of citizens who have asked for a better plan,” said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies Representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

“The recovery of wolves in the Northern Rockies is tantalizingly close — but we are not there yet,” said Louisa Willcox, Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s office in Livingston, Montana. “And sadly, state-sponsored hunts are only going to push the finish line further away. The science is clear; so until we see natural connectivity between Yellowstone and the rest of the Rockies and states willing to give the wolves a break, not drive them to the brink of extinction, this fight will continue.”

“Unfortunately, leaving wolves in state hands right now threatens their survival. Wolves are one of America’s natural treasures, and they should be managed that way,” Melanie Stein, a Sierra Club representative, said. “It makes no sense to delist wolves on a state-by-state basis. Wolves don’t know political boundaries. We look forward to restoring wolves to the care of the federal government until the states have come up with plans that will sustain wolves into the future. We hope to work with the Obama administration to ensure that wolves fully recover.”

"We are disappointed that this early in the new administration, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar choose to ignore sound science and instead choose to pursue a piecemeal delisting plan for the Northern Rockies gray wolf population. It makes no sense to segment an already fragmented population with two different management plans. Taking away Endangered Species protection from wolves in Montana and Idaho while keeping Wyoming’s wolves under federal protection completely ignores the best population and ecosystem science. In addition, we firmly believe that the three states’ management plans will lead to the unwarranted death of hundreds of wolves. As much as we wish to have the states manage their wolves, they simply haven't developed adequate management plans, and the Federal government is acting irresponsibly by proposing delisting under these circumstances,” said Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

“We are disappointed the new administration has missed this opportunity to rethink the failed wolf persecution policies of the last eight years,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation with The Humane Society of the United States. “The federal government’s efforts to strip wolves of all federal protection have been repeatedly struck down by the courts, and this latest rule is no more likely to succeed than the previous failed attempts.”

“It is unfortunate that the Obama administration has adopted Bush-era legal views that count wolves as ‘recovered’ even when they still only occupy less than five percent of their original range in our country,” said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Wolves are still endangered and we believe the court will see through this chicanery.”

“Wolf reintroduction transcends state boundaries, and so does wolf habitat. What one state does to their wolves can greatly affect what happens in another state,” said Jennifer Schwartz, staff attorney for Hells Canyon Preservation Council. “Therefore, until the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves are fully recovered throughout a significant portion of their historical habitat, it makes the most sense for wolves to be managed by the feds, not the states. If Idaho shoots a large percentage of their wolves, it’s highly unlikely that Oregon will have any stable wolf packs at all.

“Wolf populations in the Northern Rockies are nearing legitimate recovery levels. Like most things, you can do it right or you can do it over. Here, FWS did it over, but did it wrong,” said Doug Honnold of Earthjustice, who represents the conservation group plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “When the states demonstrate they are willing to manage wolves for long-term survival and recovery rather than short-term devastation, we can all celebrate true recovery of the wolf.”