SAN DIEGO – In its latest anti-environmental move to please the off-road lobby, the Bush administration announced today that it is refusing to even consider following the U.S. Endangered Species Act to protect 16 unique endangered animals on the Algodones Sand Dunes in the Sonoran Desert of southeastern California. Intensive off-road vehicle (ORV) driving on the dunes by millions of vehicles annually is the primary threat to dunes wildlife. Global warming, pesticide drift and border militarization are also significant threats.
On December 12, 2002, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the Andrew’s dunes scarab as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). On July 19, 2004, the Center, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Sierra Club filed another petition with FWS to list 16 additional species that are endemic to the Algodones Dunes:
Two sand wasps (Microbembex elegans Griswold and Stictiella villegasi Bohart); two bees (Perdita algodones Timberlake and P. glamis Timberlake); one vespid (Euparagia n. sp.); two velvet ants (Dasymutilla nocturna Mickel and Dasymutilla imperialis); three jewel beetles (Algodones sand jewel beetle, Lepismadora algodones Velten, Algodones white wax jewel beetle, Prasinalia imperialis (Barr), and Algodones Croton jewel beetle, Agrilus harenus Nelson); two scarab beetles (Hardy’s dune beetle, Anomala hardyorum Potts and Cyclocephala wandae); and four subspecies of Roth’s dune weevil (Trigonoscuta rothi rothi, T. r. algodones, T. r. imperialis, and T. r. punctata).
All 17 of these desert animals are found only at the Algodones Dunes, which is public land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“Our petitions present good scientific evidence to support status reviews. The Endangered Species Act works and it’s the law, but this administration won’t follow it. These 17 endemic species need its protection now because BLM’s plan to sacrifice the Algodones Dunes to the off-road industry could wipe them out,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center who formerly worked with BLM in the California Desert. “The administration unethically ignored science and reality again with this political decision to serve its supporters in the off-road lobby. We will challenge this illegal government irresponsibility in court.”
“The Bush administration has created a weird and awkward paradigm in which scientific decisions are made by politicians and the courts have to make decisions based on science,” said Karen Schambach, California PEER Director. “It’s neither honest nor efficient, and it wastes taxpayer dollars. Worst of all, species go extinct while we wait for the political games to play out.”
ORVs at the Algodones Dunes use special tires that cut deeply into the sand, directly killing animals and destroying their habitat. Many of these 17 species are most active from February to April, a biologically critical time that coincides with the season of heavy ORV use at the dunes. BLM tried to make a decision to roll back environmental protections on nearly 50,000 dunes acres, opening 86 percent of the habitat to ORV damage, but a federal judge found that it was illegal and blocked the plan on March 14.
The FWS first proposed to protect the Andrew’s dune scarab beetle under the ESA protection in 1978. At that time, FWS noted, “this action is being taken because of their decreased population levels and anticipated adverse modification of their habitat.” FWS stated in the proposed rules that “the continued disruption of dune troughs by off-road vehicles prevents the accumulation of dead organic matter upon which the immature stages of this beetle feed.” In October 1980, FWS issued a notice to withdraw the proposal because final rulemaking had not been completed within a then required two-year deadline. ESA protection for the Andrew’s dune scarab beetle was therefore denied due to the failure of FWS to meet mandatory deadlines rather than to new scientific data indicating a listing was not warranted.
FWS’s failure to provide legal protection for the beetle resulted in more than two decades of dunes mismanagement by the BLM that failed to take into account the impacts of increasing ORV use on the beetle and other rare and endangered fauna of the dunes. The dunes are currently managed under a 2000 agreement between BLM, off-roaders, and conservationists, which keeps more than 106 square miles open to ORVs while the other half of the dunes are protected for wildlife and scenic non-motorized recreation. However, BLM has been pushing a plan for the off-road lobby that not only fails to protect the 17 endemic animals, but also eliminates ORV closures designed to protect a threatened plant found only at the dunes, the Peirson’s milkvetch.
The preferred alternative in BLM’s invalidated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Recreation Area Management Plan for the Algodones Dunes (BLM RAMP 2002) was to permit ORVs in an astounding 198,220 acres and protect only 25,800 acres, which are already designated wilderness by act of Congress. The EIS listed only five insect species as “known to occur or having the potential to occur” at the Algodones Dunes. The BLM ignored the nearly two-dozen other endemic insects at the Algodones Dunes for which information has long been available in the scientific literature. Biologists at the Center were able to readily locate information on these endemics in published journals, reports to the agency and via personal communication with entomologists familiar with the area. It is therefore very disturbing why the BLM made no acknowledgement of these species in its proposed management plan, and even more disturbing that FWS does not care.
Dunes are hotspots of biological diversity in desert regions, likely because they are more mesic than other desert habitats due to their ability to store water. The Algodones Dunes are no exception, harboring dozens of rare endemic insects and plants within its habitat island. Insect species endemic to the Algodones Dunes are adapted to the hot, arid environment and often exhibit habitat specialization, such as dependence upon a particular host plant. Narrow endemic species and habitat specialists are considered more prone to extinction than widespread habitat generalists.
During the day and early evening, perhaps 80 percent of desert fauna are buried underground and are subsequently crushed and maimed by ORV tires. For example, surveys at the Algodones Dunes comparing areas used by ORVs with unused areas indicate that ORVs cause drastic reductions in the abundance of several beetle species. These ORVs also result in reduced plant cover, further threatening the survival of the rare endemic species of the Algodones Dunes that depend on these plants for food and breeding sites. Studies at the dunes have indicated that even moderate ORV use results in significant reductions of plant cover.
BLM has pushed its abysmal management plan despite demonstrated adverse impacts of ORVs on the species that inhabit the Algodones Dunes. Therefore, vulnerability from anthropogenic (historic, ongoing, and imminent human-caused habitat destruction) and environmental (restricted range, habitat specialist) pressures, as well as a complete failure of land management plans to protect this fragile dune habitat and the species it supports from excessive ORV use, puts the rare endemic wildlife of the Algodones Dunes at risk of extinction.
Bush Interior Department political appointee Julie MacDonald joined an ORV lobby sponsored junket to the dunes last year, and ever since has been working to ignore science and the public-interest by removing all balanced conservation measures at the dunes. The off-road lobby’s desire to remove the protected areas would be devastating to dozens of imperiled species – including the Peirson’s milkvetch, desert tortoise and flat-tailed horned lizard – and would also worsen air pollution and run off hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, Native Americans and others. In addition to allowing intense environmental harm, opening conservation areas to off-road vehicles would displace non-motorized visitors, costing nearby communities in Imperial and Yuma counties at least $3.3 million in extra annual spending related to sustainable recreation at the Algodones Dunes.