Feds – again – deny endangered species status to Sonoran desert tortoise

A young Sonoran desert tortoise. Federal officials say there are hundreds of thousands of adult tortoises, which is why they do not need endangered species protection. But environmentalists say that ignores looming threats to the species. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

WASHINGTON – The Sonoran desert tortoise has been denied endangered species status for a second time after a 14-year battle waged by advocates to protect the “ancient, iconic species of the desert.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that after a scientific review of the Arizona tortoise and its habitat, it determined that endangered species protection was “not warranted,” noting the current population of adults estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.

But environmental groups, which had sued in hopes of forcing the designation, said the tortoise needs protection, as its habitat is threatened by grazing, increased fire risk and housing developments, among other things.

“We hope that the Fish and Wildlife Service is correct … but we’re going to request more information from the agency and we’re going to carefully go over that and look at their models, look at the science they say they’re using and make sure that they’ve done the job they’re supposed to do,” said Cyndi Tuell, the Arizona and New Mexico director for the Western Watersheds Project.

It and the group WildEarth Guardians questioned the government’s analysis and said they will continue to advocate for the tortoise’s protection.

The same two groups sued the service in 2020 in an effort to get it to reverse its 2015 decision that came to the same conclusion on the health of the species. That suit led to the review that ended with Tuesday’s status decision.

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An FWS statement on the decision said that “populations remain stable, with estimates in the hundreds of thousands of adult tortoises.” It acknowledged that there are several potential threats to the species, but that none of them pose an immediate threat.

“While several of these threats, mainly development and drought, may increase in scope or severity over time, the species and its associated habitat are projected to remain at levels that do not threaten the survival of the Sonoran desert tortoise in the foreseeable future,” said an agency statement.

The service also noted that large parts of the tortoise’s range is on federal or tribal lands that are managed for its protection.

The environmental groups said the service relied on predictive modeling and data not available to the public to conduct its analysis, painting a rosier picture of the current and future situation of the tortoise.

“The Service’s announcement asserts that 29 percent of the species’ range in Arizona is on publicly-owned lands managed specifically ‘for the benefit of wildlife,’” said a joint statement from the groups. “This includes the Sonoran Desert National Monument where the Bureau resisted conducting a thorough or adequate analysis of the impacts of livestock grazing.”

Tuell also said the FWS ignored data that suggests the border wall will have a negative impact on the tortoise species, instead reporting that it would be impossible to know what impact a wall would have.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service knows that the border wall has basically entirely cut off the tortoises ability to move north and south between the US and Mexico,” Tuell said. “So, I think it was pretty disingenuous of them to make that claim.”

Requests Tuesday for comment on the advocacy groups’ claims were not immediately returned by the service.

Tuell said Western Watersheds and WildEarth Guardians will continue to fight for protection for the tortoise species.

“The tortoise population is declining, the tortoise habitat is being harmed and the Fish and Wildlife Service should still recognize the fact that the species needs protection as an endangered species,” she said.

Reagan Priest Ray-gan Priest (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Reagan Priest expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Priest has also worked at The Copper Courier, The State Press, Cronkite News D.C., The Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS.