The La Paz County Supervisors are concerned over the economic and other impacts two lawsuits filed by environmental groups will have on the county and the surrounding area. At their April 20 meeting, they approved paying the Quad States Local Government Authority up to $35,000 to represent the county’s interests in a pair of lawsuits filed by WildEarth Guardians.

Both suits seek to overturn the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision on two species:  the Joshua Tree and the Sonoran Desert Tortoise. Fish & Wildlife had decided these two species did not meet the criteria for “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. WildEarth Guardians is seeking to have those species declared threatened or endangered.

District 1 Supervisor D.L. Wilson said both suits could have a detrimental impact on outdoor recreation in the area, particularly off-road activities. It could also adversely affect the Arizona Peace Trail, a trail that loops between Yuma and Bullhead City that has become popular with off-roaders.

Wilson said there is almost no Joshua Tree habitat in La Paz County, but there is some in the Hualapai Mountains in Mohave County, which is one of the areas the Peace Trail passes through. Nearly all of La Paz County and 10 other Arizona counties could be declared habitat for the Sonoran Desert Tortoise. This tortoise is recognized as a different species from the Mohave Desert Tortoise in that it lives in scrubland near the bases of mountain ranges.

If these two species are declared threatened or endangered, some areas could be designated as “critical habitat,” Wilson said. This means access to these areas could be blocked at certain times of the year.

“This could have a devastating impact on the Peace Trail and outdoor recreation,” Wilson said.

According to the Palm Springs, Calif. Desert Sun, WildEarth Guardians was one of the groups which petitioned U.S. Fish & Wildlife in 2015 to have the Joshua Tree declared threatened or endangered.

In August 2019, Fish & Wildlife said the Joshua Tree did not meet the criteria for protection under the Endangered Species Act. They said there had been no major contraction in the number of Joshua Trees or their habitat in 40 years.

On Nov. 4, 2019, WildEarth Guardians filed suit in the U.S. Central District Court of California to compel Fish & Wildlife to list the Joshua Tree as threatened or endangered. Taylor Jones, a biologist for the organization, said the Administration is ignoring science because they don’t believe in climate change.

Jones claimed that, given the rate of climate change, only .02 percent of the Joshua Tree’s range will be left in Joshua Tree National Park by 2070.

“This is blatant disregard of the climate crisis,” he told the Desert Sun.

WildEarth Guardians was one of the groups that petitioned Fish & Wildlife to list the Sonoran Desert Tortoise as threatened or endangered. In October 2015, Fish & Wildlife stated that, unlike the Mohave Desert Tortoise, the Sonoran tortoise did not face extinction, and it was removed as a candidate for the Endangered Species list.

WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project filed suit on Sept. 4, 2019 in U.S. District Court in Tucson to have to compel Fish & Wildlife to list the Sonoran tortoise under the Endangered Species Act. They’re being represented by the Western Environmental Law Center. They claim Fish & Wildlife did not have enough data to decide whether the tortoise should be protected.

“The law doesn’t allow the agency to assume the species is doing fine based on an absence of data,” said Matthew Bishop, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, in a written statement as reported on the website, tucson.com.

Cyndi Tuell, Arizona and New Mexico director for the Western Watersheds Project, said other threats include climate change, development, invasive species, fire, habitat fragmentation by roads and other infrastructure, and what she called “border militarization.”

“The tortoise is definitely one of those species that can’t fly or climb over the wall,” Tuell said to tucson.com.

Wilson said the courts are unlikely to order the two species listed as threatened or endangered, but they will likely order Fish & Wildlife to re-examine them.

The Quad Cities Local Government Authority was established in 1999 to provide a multi-county voice on federal natural resource and land issues in the Mojave Desert region. In addition to La Paz County, Mohave County is also a member. California counties include Imperial, Inyo and San Bernardino. Lincoln and Nye Counties in Nevada are members, as is Washington County in Utah. The City of Ridgecrest is also a member.

The Joshua Tree is not really a tree, but a “succulent” similar to cacti. The National Wildlife Federation said it was named by Mormon settlers who said its upraised arms reminded them of the Biblical leader Joshua as he led the Israelites into the Promised Land.

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