There is a bigger story behind the recent standoff between the BLM and rancher Clive Bundy. The confrontation is part of a long battle over Federal land management practices after the Mojave Desert Tortoise was listed as an endangered species in the fall of 1989. I think the battle could have negative consequences for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act.
I am a wildlife biologist that has worked on desert tortoise related projects in southern Nevada since 1990.
A large part of the Mojave Desert has been classified as tortoise habitat by the United States Fish and Wildlife Sevice. In the eastern half, southern Nevada, this habitat area is where people decided to build Las Vegas and other sorts of communities.
The response to the federal listing was ugly, and the science community was met with howls of derision from the developers, realtors, and local politicians. It would stifle the growth of Las Vegas, they said. Other interests, such as the ranching and mining communities, derided the listing as well. There was much speculation by these groups that the listing was bogus, that the justification for it was a lie.
Conspiracy theory pushers on local AM talk radio began claiming it was a federal government plot to take away land use from the locals, that there was no scientific basis for the decision, and anybody who said there was were lying. A couple of these hosts told their audiences that anyone working with desert tortoises, such as scientists and environmental groups, were traitors to their country. I was listening to this while working at the Clark County Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, in the Las Vegas Valley, and some staff got a little freaked out by that.
In fact, the federal listing was in response to a particular lawsuit brought by the Center of Biological Diversity. The suit was made in response of a new, massive development project by the Hughes Corporation, close to the mountains on the west side of the valley, where the most diverse wildlife habitat in the valley occurred.
The Mojave desert is an inhospitable place, but there are some areas teaming with wildlife. The reason is simple; it doesn't rain much. Most rainfall when it does come falls in the mountains and drains towards the Colorado River. The west side of the Las Vegas Valley is one such area, and the the lands around the Virgin River that flows to the Colorado where Bunkerville is located is another.
The reason to save the desert tortoise and its habitat in particular is also simple; tortoise habitat is where most of the wildlife not living in the mountains exists. In fact the desert tortoise is classified as an indicator species, meaning where they exist is where there is enough water for other wildlife to exist.
When the BLM realized, through scientific studies, that the Bunkerville area contained critical desert tortoise habitat that was crucial to the long term survival of the tortoise, they were required by law to restrict use of federal lands in some areas. This did not sit well with some people, like Clive Bundy.
If you were to ask Mr. Bundy about the federal listing of the desert tortoise, he would tell you it is a federal plot, and in fact he has said that for twenty years to every right wing media outlet that would express interest in having him as a guest.
The State of Nevada BLM has not done a good job managing the vast amount of tortoise habitat it has under its jurisdiction, and one big reason why is because it is really unpopular.
Local conservative politicians have used the listing of the desert tortoise to bash the BLM, the EPA, and the Endangered Species Act for years. State and National Republicans have used the listing to attack the existence of the ESA . There has been a steady push to release lands from federal over site, and they use the desert tortoise as an example.
I was disappointed by the BLM's decision to stop the round-up of Mr. Bundy's cattle, but I knew that after Mr. Bundy went for right wing radio support, it was over. Now I am waiting with some concern for the backlash by the conservatives and far right. And I have to work out there with desert tortoises, and I'm a traitor.