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San Francisco. . .The U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated its agreement to protect the threatened desert tortoise, according to a court decision issued this week in a contempt hearing filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and the Sierra Club. U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup declared that the agency violated, “the letter, the spirit, and everything about this whole process” when it failed to remove cattle from the tortoise’s designated habitat.

BLM had agreed in a lawsuit settlement last fall to have cattle moved from 500,000 acres of federal land by March 1 to protect desert tortoise populations emerging from their winter burrows, but then made no effort to do so. Last month the Center for Biological Diversity, PEER and the Sierra Club, the plaintiffs in the original suit, filed a contempt-of-court motion against BLM on the grounds that the agency had failed to implement the protections outlined in the consent decree.

Judge Alsup appeared upset that the same agency that had heartily promised to protect the tortoise in mid-January changed course by February. “I think this has something to do with the change of administrations,” Alsup said in a court transcript, ” I think that is all that’s going on here, and that’s not the way the government should be working.” He gave BLM two weeks to either come up with a plan for compliance or be held in contempt of court.

Overgrazing in the arid Southwest has contributed to the decline of the desert tortoise as livestock trample the animals’ burrows and eat the vegetation tortoises rely on as their principal food source.

“Secretary Gale Norton is living down to the low expectations that she will enforce environmental laws only when forced to,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “BLM’s failure to follow the consent decree may be a signal that dereliction of duty will become the signature style of resource protection under this Department of Interior.”

“Until now, BLM has been trying to stall this process,” stated the Center for Biological Diversity’s Daniel Patterson. “I am now confident that we will see the agreement fully implemented within the mandated two weeks.”

“It is unfortunate that the agency decided to disregard the original agreement,” said Earthjustice Staff Attorney Jay Tutchton, “The court had no choice but to enforce its order.”

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