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SACRAMENTO – Responding to an environmental emergency in the Great Basin Desert, a coalition of conservation groups today had to file a lawsuit against the Bush Interior Department for failing to consider protection of the Sand Mountain blue butterfly, an endemic species on the Sand Mountain Dunes on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands east of Fallon, Nevada.

On April 23, 2004 we filed a scientific petition with the Secretary of the Interior to list the Sand Mountain blue butterfly (Euphilotes Pallescens Arenamontana) as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, and to designate critical habitat for its conservation and recovery. Although required to respond with a “finding” within 90 days, Secretary Norton has not responded at all. The lawsuit filed today in federal district court seeks an order for the Secretary to issue a “finding” on the petition for butterfly protection. A “positive finding” is warranted as the petition presents significant information, and would start a process of a species status review and likely proposed Endangered Species Act listing.
The butterfly is dependent on approximately 1,000 acres of Kearney buckwheat shrub habitat at the Sand Mountain Dunes, which is intensively impacted by off-road vehicles. Given their restricted geographic ranges, endemic species are more prone to extinction than widespread species.

“BLM has shamefully allowed Sand Mountain to be taken over by destructive off-roading, and made many political decisions to avoid upsetting off-roaders that allow continued harm to dunes wildlife,” said Charles S. Watson, director of the Carson City-based Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association.

Sand Mountain Recreation Area (SMRA) consists of 4,795 acres of BLM public lands open to unrestricted off-road vehicle (ORV) use. Sand Mountain’s small size, lack of strong protection measures, and relative closeness to cities in Nevada and California make it a magnet for off-roaders. Local Indian Nations consider the dunes sacred and have long voiced concern about ORV damage.

Habitat for the Sand Mountain blue has suffered extensive destruction and modification from off-road vehicles. From 1993 to 2003 the BLM reported a 25 percent increase in visitor use at the recreation area, and ORV use is still going up fast. This increase has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of off-road impacts through the Sand Mountain Blue habitat. The Kearney buckwheat was once pervasive in the vicinity of the dunes, but in the past five years most plants have been destroyed by ORVs. The key to preserving the Sand Mountain blue butterfly is to ensure the continued existence of its host plant, Kearney buckwheat, in large enough numbers to maintain a viable population of the butterfly.

“This attractive blue butterfly lives only at Sand Mountain, BLM is unethically letting its dunes habitat be destroyed by off-road excess, and the Bush administration won’t even follow the law to read our petition and consider protection,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center who formerly worked with BLM. “The Sand Mountain blue and other dunes endemics are a beautiful part the Great Basin Desert, and only the protections of the Endangered Species Act will ensure their survival and recovery.”

BLM did recently take some small steps to reduce off-road impacts, but still has kept an excessive route network spider-webbed across the shrinking butterfly habitat. Compliance and enforcement have also been problematic.

“BLM has responded shamefully to an environmental emergency, ignoring its own data that shows habitat for this species is being decimated by recreational excesses. And USFWS, the agency that is supposed to act in such circumstances, is itself AWOL,” says Karen Schambach of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The United Nations just declared 2006 the International Year of Deserts, in response to threats to desert ecosystems in North America and worldwide.

Lisa Belenky, Conservation Attorney in the Center’s San Francisco office, is representing plaintiffs in this case.

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