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Dunes’ Milk-Vetch Plant Remains Protected

July 19, 2008

By James Gilbert, The Sun, Yuma, Ariz.

Jul. 18–After completing a second status review of Peirson’s milk-vetch plant, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that it should remain listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“The threatened status means it is likely that the plant will become extinct in the foreseeable future,” said Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the USFWS office in Carlsbad, Calif.

The finding of the 12-month status review was posted to the federal registry Wednesday. Off-highway vehicle groups, including the American Sand Association (ASA), had petitioned the federal wildlife agency seeking to remove the Peirson’s milk-vetch from the federal list of endangered and threatened plants and animals.

The plant was originally added to the list of endangered species in 1998.

A news release issued by the ASA’s board of directors expressed the organization’s disappointment over the federal agency’s decision not to delist the plant.

“The American Sand Association stands fast to its resolution that the Peirson’s milk-vetch is not deserving of a federally protected status,” it read. “The plant has been the subject of many extensive and costly studies, and all the reports draw the same conclusion.”

ASA president Bob Mason added, “We think it’s a possibility that the decision was more politically motivated than based on good science.”

The ASA also urged its members and other off-highway vehicle enthusiasts to continue honoring the temporary closures currently in place.

Daniel Patterson, biologist and director for Southwest Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, called the decision a “no brainer.”

“While we are pleased, there still needs to be better overall management at the dunes so the plant can fully recover,” Patterson said. “It’s important to remember that the milk-vetch is just an indicator to the overall health of the web of life in the dunes. The dunes are a unique place filled with some unique species.”

Patterson added that he thinks the plant will remain endangered until the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages the dunes, begins some type of multiple use management plan that allows for many various types of activities.

When the off-road groups first petitioned the wildlife agency in 2001, they argued the plant’s numbers were more abundant then originally reported and that the plant’s population and reproductive capacity were stable and strong enough to warrant delisting.

They also contended that there is no evidence that off-highway vehicle use negatively affects the continued viability of the plant.

In 2004, the USFWS completed a 12-month status review of the 2001 petition and determined the plant should remain listed under the ESA.

Then in 2005, based on additional data collected, off-road groups again petitioned USFWS again to delist the plant.

The second 12-month status review the wildlife agency just completed was the result of that 2005 petition the off-road groups filed.

Hendron said, based on a review of all the information provided in the petition, additional research, information in the wildlife agency’s files and input from peer reviewers, it was determined that the milk-vetch is threatened by habitat destruction, modification from OHV use; predation by beetles that likely exacerbates other existing threats; and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms to protect the plant because of uncertainties regarding future management of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area (ISDRA).

Hendron added that 65 percent of the plant’s population is located within about 50,000 acres of dunes that were temporarily closed in 2000 by the BLM as part of settlement negotiations with environmental groups.

She said they those areas within the closures will remain closed while the BLM continues to develop a Recreation Area Management Plan (RAMP) for the dunes, and that depending upon future management decisions by BLM, these closure areas could reopen.

“The USFWS expects to be working closely with BLM as part of the development of their RAMP to address conservation issues within the dunes while still providing OHV users the opportunity to continue to use the dunes.”

Mason said the new RAMP will have to consider the milk-vetch as an endangered plant and that was something they were hoping to avoid by having the plant delisted.

James Gilbert can be reached at jgilbert@yumasun.com or 539-6854.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Sun, Yuma, Ariz.

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