The Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan

Steve Thompson


August 18, 2003

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the invitation to appear before you to present testimony regarding the desert tortoise recovery plan and its impact on access to Federal land in the California Desert Conservation Area and the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. I am Steve Thompson, Manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) California/Nevada Operations Office.

The Service is working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS), and State wildlife agencies to provide access and use of public lands while providing for the conservation and recovery of the desert tortoise and other listed species. We are required by law to work toward recovery of the desert tortoise; but we cannot do it alone. We encourage and welcome your assistance and guidance and the participation of any and all users of the desert. Only with broad participation can we develop plans that will conserve imperiled species and their habitats.


The desert tortoise is one of the better known inhabitants of the California Desert and is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Information on high mortality rates associated with a respiratory disease resulted in the emergency listing of the Mojave desert tortoise as endangered in 1989. In 1990, further review of other threats to the desert tortoise, such as habitat loss and degradation and predation by common ravens, led to its listing as threatened. In 1994, the Service finalized critical habitat for the Mojave Desert population in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

The threatened Peirson’s milk vetch is another listed species found in the area. On August 5, 2003, the Service proposed to designate critical habitat for this species on approximately 52,780 acres of sand dunes in Algodones Dunes in Imperial County, California. The Service listed the plant as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1998 primarily because of threats to the plant by off-highway vehicle use. Earlier this year, the Service completed consultation on BLM’s draft Recreation Area Management Plan (RAMP) for the dunes. Based on the review of the draft RAMP and the provisions to conduct monitoring and study efforts, the Service determined that implementation of the RAMP would not likely jeopardize the continued existence of the Peirson's milk-vetch in the Algodones Dunes within the next four years.

Desert tortoise recovery plan

The Service initiated work on the recovery plan for the desert tortoise in October 1990 with the establishment of a recovery team including nationally recognized scientists in desert tortoise biology, conservation biology, desert ecology, and diseases of reptiles. The recovery team incorporated scientific data provided by researchers from the Service, BLM, NPS, and four State wildlife agencies from California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, and from universities from southern California, Nevada and Colorado. The recovery team completed a draft recovery plan in 1993 and, after an opportunity for public comment, finalized it in 1994.

The desert tortoise faces a variety of threats to its recovery. Upper respiratory tract disease, predation by the common raven, and habitat loss and degradation are among the foremost threats facing this species in the areas covered by the recovery plan. Human activities contribute to these sources of mortality by altering landscapes, which in some cases can increase resources for the common raven.

The recovery strategy for the desert tortoise is based on accepted principles of conservation biology, including the creation of habitat reserves (desert wildlife management areas, or DWMAs) of sufficient size with establishment of adequate regulatory mechanisms to halt human-caused habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation and direct mortality of the species. To achieve the goal of habitat protection and species persistence, the recovery plan identifies and recommends, based on an extensive body of published literature, that certain types of management actions be taken to assist in the recovery of the species. In addition, the recovery plan called for monitoring of the recovery units to document the species condition over time. Furthermore, the plan identified delisting criteria which include: 1) as determined by a scientifically credible monitoring plan, the population within a recovery unit must exhibit a statistically upward trend or remain stationary for at least 25 years; 2) the long-term viability of desert tortoise populations within a recovery unit must be ensured through habitat protection or intensive management; 3) provisions must be made for population management within each recovery unit so that discrete population growth rates are maintained or increased; 4) regulatory protections or land management commitments are to be implemented to provide for the long-term protection of the species and its habitat; and 5) the population in the recovery unit is unlikely to need protection under the ESA in the foreseeable future.

Based on the Desert Tortoise Management Group’s (MOG) and others’ input, the best available scientific and commercial data available at the time was used to formulate the management actions and options recommended in the recovery plan. The goal of the recovery plan is to protect habitat and reduce mortality via the establishment of management actions and partnership efforts, leading to the eventual delisting of the species. The recommendations in the recovery plan were consistent with BLM’s Management Plan for desert tortoise habitat protection and with the NPS goals for Mojave Desert habitat protection.

To achieve the goal of habitat protection and species recovery, the recovery plan identifies and recommends management actions be taken to assist the recovery of the species. Management actions target the recovery needs for each recovery unit, and land management agencies, both Federal and State, establish the specific boundaries and management of these areas through their land use plans.

Recovery Implementation

Recovery implementation balances conservation of the desert tortoise with continued use of public resources. We continue to accomplish recovery objectives for the desert tortoise recovery with the cooperation and involvement of local communities, land management agencies, State fish and wildlife agencies and other partners. With the help of local communities, tortoise-proof fencing has been constructed along major roads and highways that bisect important tortoise habitat. In addition, other activities have contributed to recovery implementation including: the removal of excess wild horses and burros; the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Wildlife Services has conducted raven-control activities in Nevada to protect young tortoises vulnerable to raven predation; research has been initiated and conducted to address desert tortoise recovery issues including disease, translocation techniques, and effects of grazing; livestock permits have been purchased from willing sellers; habitat has been enhanced or restored through the efforts of many conservation partners; and a range-wide population monitoring program was initiated in 2001 to identify population trends and document recovery.

Management actions in these conservation areas are not the sole decision of the Service or the BLM. We are a member of two organizations that provide management guidance related to tortoise recovery throughout the Southwest - the MOG, which is chaired by the Service, and the Desert Managers Group (DMG). Both groups have representatives from several federal and state land management agencies. These groups also seek input from the users of the desert, from environment organizations to off-road enthusiasts.

The Desert Tortoise Recovery Team was disbanded after the final recovery plan was approved by the Service in 1994. Subsequently, recovery implementation and monitoring became a responsibility of the MOG and the DMG for the California deserts. The MOG and DMG work in concert to coordinate rangewide desert tortoise recovery implementation. Because recovery implementation occurs largely on public lands, recovery guidance and oversight involves land managers such as the Department of Defense, BLM, NPS, as well as the Service, which are all represented in the MOG and DMG.

The Service has worked as a member of the MOG to outline processes and time frames for completing Section 7 Section 7
Section 7 Consultation The Endangered Species Act (ESA) directs all Federal agencies to work to conserve endangered and threatened species and to use their authorities to further the purposes of the Act. Section 7 of the Act, called "Interagency Cooperation," is the mechanism by which Federal agencies ensure the actions they take, including those they fund or authorize, do not jeopardize the existence of any listed species.

Learn more about Section 7
consultations on BLM’s land use plans. Since the listing of the desert tortoise and other species in the California Desert Conservation Area, the Service has issued over 250 biological opinions, which have allowed the BLM and the public the ability to use and enjoy these lands. In addition, the Service has developed programmatic biological opinions, which allowed and continue to allow BLM activities and projects to go forward in desert tortoise habitat where the effects of the activities are expected to be small.

Land use prescriptions recommended in the recovery plan have been implemented across the range of the desert tortoise to a limited extent. In its December 2002 report to Congress, the General Accounting Office stated, “To protect the tortoise, government agencies have restricted grazing and off-road vehicle use and taken other protective actions in desert tortoise habitat, but the effectiveness of these actions is unknown. Research is underway, in several areas, including tortoise disease, predation, and nutrition, but the research has not assessed the effectiveness of the protective actions.” The Service believes that the effectiveness of recovery actions is difficult to determine because desert tortoises may not respond in a measurable way for a number of years following implementation of recovery actions because of the length of time required for desert tortoises to reach maturity. Years of below-average rainfall will further slow the pace of recovery of the numbers of desert tortoises and the condition of their habitat.

The future of desert tortoise recovery

Based on new information that indicates substantial declines in desert tortoise populations in numerous areas throughout its range, the Service is conducting a formal review of the 1994 recovery plan. In March 2003, we initiated an assessment of the 1994 plan by forming an Assessment Committee comprised of scientists with expertise in desert tortoise biology, ecology and disease, along with scientists who will review the monitoring techniques to address concerns raised by the recently completed GAO report. The Committee will reassess the recovery plan to gather and evaluate existing and new information on the status and trends of desert tortoise populations and recommend changes to the recovery plan based on new information. This assessment process is open to involvement from interested parties through participation in the MOG and DMG monthly meetings. The Committee will submit a report with its recommendations to the MOG and DMG for consideration by January 2004. These groups will use this new information to revise the recovery plan, which will take approximately one year.

A desert tortoise disease workshop was conducted in November 2002, involving wildlife disease experts. At the workshop, the group concluded that the cause of mortality is influenced by multiple factors including drought, poor nutrition, environmental toxins, predation, and habitat degradation including human developments and infrastructure. These factors, in combination, may cause disease and mortality. The California Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Geological Survey are preparing a report which summarizes the discussions and recommendations from the workshop to address disease management. We anticipate this report in the near future.

In our attempt to balance species recovery with appropriate land use, the BLM and Service have been challenged in several lawsuits related to the desert tortoise. We currently have active lawsuits from environmental groups and off-road vehicle groups. Finding a balance between recreational use and environmental protection in the California Desert is truly a challenge and our goal.


Mr. Chairman, the Service is diligently working with BLM and interest groups so that an appropriate network of roads and trails can be developed that allows for both the conservation and recovery of the desert tortoise and access to the California desert. We are required by law to work toward recovery of the desert tortoise; but we don’t do it alone. We welcome the participation of any and all users of the desert. Only with broad participation can we develop plans that will protect the desert for people and wildlife. Thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony and I would be happy to answer any questions.