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TORTOISE DECLARATION WAS ILL-ADVISED

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The emergency declaration in July making the desert tortoise an endangered species may have serious repercussions.

The reptile has been declining rapidly in the past few years, largely because of a respiratory infection, although habitat loss because of off-road vehicles must be harming them too.In Utah, the tortoise was long ago designated as threatened, but new areas are being set aside as critical habitat here. In other parts of the reptile's range in the Mojave Desert regions of Arizona, Nevada and California, hundreds of square miles are set aside as critical habitat because of the emergency ruling.

The designation is in effect for eight months, at the end of which time the Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether it should continue.

Special protection is imposed when a species is declared endangered. Animals can't be taken away from critical habitat, and man isn't supposed to do anything on the land that could hurt them.

A F&WS official told the Deseret News a couple of months ago, shortly after the declaration, that changing from threatened to endangered probably would probably cause few differences for ranchers and others who make their living on the part of the tortoise's range.

But an important sale of state land is already in some jeopardy because of the change.

Since 1983, Jim Doyle, a developer in St. George, has leased 2,428 acres from the state in a swath that includes undeveloped parts of St. George and Washington, Washington County. He intends to build a "very low-density project," a resort-residential community. The development corresponds to a state land-use plan, said Ralph Becker, a spokesman for the developer.

Doyle said, "Some of the areas will not be built upon at all. It's golf-oriented . . . There will be a great deal of the land that stays the way it is now."

On Aug. 30, the Utah Division of State Lands accepted the offer of Doyle's company, Rocky Mountain Ventures, to purchase the land, rather than build on it under a renewable 50-year lease. Both sides thought this would make more sense.

Becker said that when the Bureau of Land Management was working on preliminary management plans for its nearby land about two years ago, "we went over and looked at their land-planning work . . .

"It didn't appear as though there were any resource conflicts that were apparent."

When the Lands Division decided to sell, adjacent landowners were notified, including the BLM. The agency then wrote to the division, "saying, `We're concerned about this as it may affect desert tortoises,' " Becker said.

Asked whether tortoises are on the property, Doyle said, "I've seen three in the last seven years."

He doesn't know if the emergency designation will hang up the sale. "This thing is just a few days old with us, and it certainly came as a surprise," he said.

Doyle is anxious to work with the BLM on the issue.

"We are very, very sensitive to anything having to do with the land," he said. "If it's tortoises, we're sensitive to it; if it's vegetation, we're sensitive to it."

A BLM official he spoke with "seems to think that it is a tortoise area," he added. Doyle is trying to set up an appointment to walk the land with agency experts.

Meanwhile, the Utah Farm Bureau has gone to court in an attempt to overturn the emergency designation, joining with three other state farm bureaus and the American Farm Bureau to file a "friend of the court" brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The emergency designation "threatens the livelihood of ranchers who use the grazing lands and denies the legal rights of Farm Bureau and others to provide input before endangered designations are made," said Ken Ashby, Delta, president of the Utah group.

The brief says that listing the tortoise as endangered will not stop the spread of the respiratory disease.

What it will do, the bureau believes, is force "many ranchers . . . out of business."

"Substantial reductions in grazing or cessation of grazing altogether in these areas will have serious adverse economic effects on these ranchers," the brief says.

The F&WS said there would be little change for ranchers making their living on the Utah portion of the tortoise's range. Maybe that's so and maybe it isn't.

Americans have a duty to do what we reasonably can to protect rare and disappearing wildlife. But an emergency declaration that imposes habitat restrictions when disease is the main problem is worse than no help.

Despite the reassurances of federal officials, ranchers should be leery about the new designation - especially if it can be used to sidetrack or delay a land sale that apparently had no environmental objections back when the tortoise was only listed as threatened.

The chaotic and sudden nature of this declaration probably weakened support for the Endangered Species Act itself, and the loss of this law would be a terrible blow.