Clark County named as defendant in federal lawsuit over desert tortoise habitat

AZGFD Sonoran Desert tortoise
AZGFD Sonoran Desert tortoise(Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD))
Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 2:40 PM PDT
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - On Thursday, an environmental group filed a federal lawsuit that named Clark County among its defendants, alleging that multiple agencies have failed to protect a desert tortoise habitat in Southern Nevada.

The complaint was submitted in U.S. District Court, District of the District of Columbia, by the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit organization based in Hailey, ID. Additional defendants include Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the U.S. Forest Service.

The 29-page filing asks for declaratory and injunctive relief. It begins with a description of the Mojave desert tortoise, which it notes was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1990. It says that the tortoise “has declined dramatically in nearly all of its range due to threats including degradation and destruction of its habitat by livestock grazing and human development.”

Desert tortoise eating prickly pear
Desert tortoise eating prickly pear(Source: National Park Service)

It continues by stating that Clark County and other signatories adopted the Clark County Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan to protect the desert tortoise and 77 other species. The suit alleges that illegal grazing is taking place near Gold Butte National Monument in an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern,” causing “irreversible damage to ecological values.”

“The Bureau has not rounded up and removed these cattle,” the suit stated. “Even though it is aware they are compromising the lands’ habitat values, and the lands are closed to grazing.”

The complaint added that “vast swaths” of land previously intended to serve as wildlife habitat are now either proposed or approved for large-scale solar development, eliminating the land’s value to the desert tortoise. The suit specifies that four large solar developments spanning more than 13,000 acres were approved for lands completely or partially covered by the prior protection agreement.

The Western Watersheds Project noted that desert tortoise populations have plummeted since 2001, and stated that “the species is in long-term decline.” It added that the animal’s population recently fell by 32% during a ten-year period.

The complaint included multiple claims for relief and asked the various agencies to be found in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. It also asked for grazing on the lands in question to stop “until a lawful consultation is complete.”

In a media release, the Western Watersheds Project directly broached the “impacts of Cliven Bundy’s thirty years of trespass livestock grazing.” Bundy is a far-right activist best known for his showdowns with federal and state law enforcement officials in Oregon and Nevada. In July, a court ordered him and three of his groups to pay over $50 million in damages for accusing a hospital of child trafficking and harassing medical staff.

“Clark County and the federal agencies wanted to preserve public lands to compensate for development around Las Vegas, but they haven’t ensured that the mitigation lands it is counting on to recover desert tortoises aren’t being destroyed by livestock operators and energy developers,” said Erik Molvar of the Western Watersheds Project. “Otherwise, it’s a lose-lose proposition for wildlife, and that violates the recovery mandate of the Endangered Species Act.”