CARLSBAD CA — In a move to protect unique Sonoran Desert wildlife threatened by off-road vehicles (ORVs), the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and Sierra Club today filed a petition with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list 16 Algodones Dunes endemic species as threatened or endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act: 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). Conservationists also want critical habitat designated for the species concurrent with listing, as required by law.
The most significant impact on the Algodones Dunes is intensive off-road driving — the dunes are hammered by upwards of 240,000 ORV users on a single busy weekend. ORVs at the Algodones Dunes include sand rails, motorcycles, trucks, and ATVs whose tires cut deeply into the sand even when accelerating on level ground (Stebbins 1995).
“We have to move for protection of these endemic species because the Bush administration’s plan to sacrifice the Algodones Dunes to the off-road industry could cause their extinction,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center. “BLM hasn’t even considered these unique and interesting desert animals, which clearly need Endangered Species Act protection now.”
The dunes are currently managed under a 2000 agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), off-roaders, and conservationists that keeps over 106 sq. miles open to ORVs, while the other roughly half of the dunes are protected for wildlife, and scenic non-motorized recreation. But the Bush BLM wants to scrap this balanced multiple-use management and open all available dunes habitat to intensive, destructive off-roading.
The preferred alternative in the Bush BLM’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Recreation Area Management Plan for the Algodones Dunes (BLM RAMP 2002) would 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, and only three of the species are endemics or near-endemics (Andrew’s dune scarab beetle, Carlson’s dune beetle, and Hardy’s dune beetle). Therefore, 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. Conservationists were able to locate information on these endemics readily in published journals, reports to the agency, and via personal communication with entomologists familiar with the area. It is therefore disturbing why the BLM made no acknowledgement of these species in its management plan.
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 (Rabinowitz 1981, Sarre et al. 1995, Fischer and Stocklin 1997, Henein et al.1998).
During daylight and early evening, perhaps 80% of desert fauna are buried underground, and are subsequently crushed and maimed by ORV tires (Stebbins 1995). For example, surveys comparing areas used by ORVs with unused areas at the Algodones Dunes indicate that ORVs cause drastic reductions in the abundance of several beetle species (Luckenbach and Bury 1983). 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 (Luckenbach and Bury 1983, Hess in prep.).
BLM has continued to push 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 the existing regulatory mechanisms to protect this fragile dune habitat and the species it supports from excessive ORV use, puts the rare endemic insects at the Algodones Dunes at risk of extinction.
The BLM plan to remove the protected areas would be devastating to dozens of imperiled species — including the Peirson’s milkvetch, desert tortoise, flat-tailed horned lizard, and Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle — 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 will displace non-motorized visitors, costing nearby communities in the Imperial Valley and Yuma at least $3.3 million annually in sustainable recreation related spending.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently rejected a petition by the off-road industry to remove Endangered Species Act protection for the Peirson’s milkvetch, finding that the rare flowering plant is harmed by ORV’s and in need of continued legal protection.