Feds Say 'No' to Cutting Protection for Endangered Mojave Plant

Lane Mountain milk-vetch | Photo: © Duncan S. Bell

A federal agency has rejected a proposal to reduce the level of protection an extremely rare Mojave Desert plant now has under the federal Endangered Species Act. On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Lane Mountain milk-vetch still warranted listing as Endangered under ESA, despite a petition from a conservative group to reduce the plant's status to Threatened.

USFWS said that the milk-vetch, Astragalus jaegerianus, is still threatened by the same things that led to its original listing as Endangered in 1998, including off-road vehicle use, drought, mining, and inadequate land management. In addition, new threats to the species have emerged in the last few years that have caused USFWS increasing concern over the milk-vetch's survival.

The Lane Mountain milk-vetch is a small, twining shrub found in just four places in the Barstow area. It grows slowly and requires the presence of specific other desert shrubs for use as shelter and as physical support for its vine-like habit. One of a number of milk-vetch species in the California desert, the survival of the spindly, two-foot Lane Mountain milk-vetch is by no means guaranteed even with continued listing as Endangered.

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In 2008, the agency suggested in a five-year review of the Lane Mountain milk-vetch's status that the species could reasonably be downlisted from Endangered to Threatened. That would have given USFWS the ability to pick and choose which of the protections that come with full Endangered status would apply to the milk-vetch.

In 2013, after USFWS had gone five years without downlisting the species, the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation submitted a petition asking USFWS to follow through on its own downlisting suggestion. But in the meantime, agency scientists had uncovered increasing threats to the Lane Mountain milk-vetch.

Climate change and the likelihood of increasing drought and related wildfire was one of the new concerns. The other is an increase in the amount of off-road vehicle (ORV) use in the areas where the milk-vetch grows, especially on BLM land -- but also including some former BLM land now managed by the U.S. Army as part of Fort Irwin.

It's worth noting that the Army agreed some years back to place Lane Mountain milk-vetch habitat off-limits to the tank training exercises it had planned for the land acquired from the BLM. But while advocates of the milk-vetch were able to stop the tanks, they haven't been as successful in stopping ORVs.

To the contrary, an additional 67 miles of ORV routes have been created in just one area of Lane Mountain milk-vetch habitat managed by the BLM, doubling the earlier extent of off-road routes there. Attempts by the BLM to limit access have been less than uniformly successful, as USFWS reports in its finding:

In the West Mojave Plan, the BLM identified minimizing vehicle routes of travel, fencing, education, and enforcement as conservation measures to help the Lane Mountain milk-vetch and its habitat. However, activities such as fencing, signing, and closing areas have had limited success in managing access or controlling new unauthorized routes.

In other words, the ORV users go wherever they want to regardless of signs and fences, a story familiar to most desert dwellers.

Not that the BLM can entirely shift blame to lawbreaking off-roaders, according to USFWS:

Although regulatory mechanisms... are in place that provide some protection to Lane Mountain milk-vetch and its habitat, some of these mechanisms have not been implemented to their fullest extent and as a result do not completely alleviate all of the direct threats currently acting on the species.

That inadequate management has prompted a number of environmental groups to announce some weeks ago that they'd be suing the Bureau of Land Management over its lax oversight of a number of protected species, including the milk-vetch. Among the groups' complaints are inadequate monitoring of the plant's actual population levels at BLM-managed sites, which means scientists working to preserve the species don't have a clear idea of just how close the species is to extinction.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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