A judge spared federal officials a contempt of court charge Thursday, but implied he might be less understanding if they don’t follow through on a deal keeping cattle off land reserved for the threatened desert tortoise.
The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups asked the U.S. District Court for Northern California to hold the Bureau of Land Management in contempt for not meeting a March 1 deadline to stop grazing on more than 500,000 acres of public land.
Judge William Alsup praised the BLM for developing a plan to meet a Sept. 7, 2001, deadline to comply with a consent decree reached in January, and told officials they must do what they can to reach it.
“You have to come up with a plan to meet the dates you imposed on yourself,” he said. “I don’t want you to go away thinking the judge has modified the consent decree, and you don’t have to meet the Sept. 7 deadline, that you just have to try.”
The judge had blasted the agency at a hearing earlier this month, saying its delay was politically motivated. He said it was trying to go back on the deal because it is more sympathetic to ranchers under the Bush administration.
The BLM said the delay was a misunderstanding and resulted in part from the time it took to do a study on the land.
The consent decree required the BLM to stop ranchers from allowing their cattle to graze on 10 public land grazing allotments in Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo counties from March 1 to June 15 and from Sept. 7 to Nov. 15, when the tortoise is in its mating and foraging periods.
The problem with the grazing is that the cattle eat the plants that the tortoise feeds on and they often crush the tortoises’ burrows, said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the CBD.
The tortoise has 3.4 million acres of land designated as critical habitat.
The BLM missed its first deadline, and grazing has not been stopped on the high desert land. BLM spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian said the delay for implementing the ban is a result of a study of the land that the BLM did to determine the threat to the tortoise.
The study was done to see if the BLM should remove the cattle on an emergency basis, or if it should follow its normal process of giving the public a chance to appeal.
“We made the determination there was no threat to the resources and there was no emergency,” Bedrosian said.
Now, the public will have 30 days – until June 15 – to appeal the recommendation to close the land to grazing. Interior Secretary Gale Norton has taken the step of ensuring a speedy decision on the issues, which will be heard by an administrative law judge. The judge will rule on them by Aug. 24, and any decision will be final. The removal of the cattle, if that’s what the judge decides, will take place two weeks later on Sept. 7.
“There’s really no reason this couldn’t have happened in March,” said Patterson, of the CBD. ”(But) it looks like the tortoise will get some rest this fall.”
Alsup scheduled a status hearing for June 14.