Endangered Species:

Research Strategy and Long-Term Monitoring Needed for the Mojave Desert Tortoise Recovery Program

GAO-03-23: Published: Dec 9, 2002. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 2002.

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Since the 1980s, biologists have been concerned about declines in the Mojave Desert Tortoise, which ranges through millions of acres in the western United States. The tortoise was first listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in Utah in 1980; it was later listed as threatened rangewide in 1990. The listing and designation of critical habitat for the tortoise, as well as recommendations in the tortoise recovery plan, have been controversial. In our report, we evaluate--assisted by scientists identified by the National Academy of Sciences--the scientific basis for key decisions related to the tortoise, assess the effectiveness of actions taken to conserve desert tortoises, determine the status of the population, and identify costs and benefits associated with desert tortoise recovery actions.

The 1990 listing of the desert tortoise, the critical habitat designation, and recommendations in the recovery plan for the tortoise were reasonable, given the information available at the time. Under the Endangered Species Act, listing and critical habitat decisions must be based on the best available scientific and commercial data. These decisions and the recovery plan recommendations were based on sources that reflected existing knowledge about desert tortoises. To protect the tortoise, government agencies have restricted grazing and off-road vehicle use and taken other protective actions in desert tortoise habitat, but the effectiveness of these actions is unknown. Research is underway in several areas, including tortoise disease, predation, and nutrition, but the research has not assessed the effectiveness of the protective actions. Furthermore, the status of desert tortoise populations is unclear because data are unavailable to demonstrate population trends. Before the tortoise may be delisted, populations must increase or remain stable for at least 25 years--one generation of desert tortoises. Determining the trends will cost an estimated $7.5 million in the first 5 years, plus additional monitoring every 3 to 5 years at a cost of about $1.5 million per year of monitoring. The Fish and Wildlife Service depends on other agencies and organizations to assist with funding and monitoring, but these agencies and organizations cannot guarantee assistance from year to year because of other priorities. Expenditures on desert tortoise recovery since the species' first listing in 1980 exceed $100 million, but the exact investment is unknown. The investment includes $92 million in "reasonably identifiable" expenditures for the tortoise, plus staff time valued at about $10.6 million. The overall economic impact of the tortoise recovery program--including benefits as well as the costs incurred by local governments, landowners, and developers as a result of restrictions--is unknown.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our December 2002 report "Endangered Species: Research Strategy and Long-term Monitoring Needed for Mojave Desert Tortoise Recovery Program," we found that the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) desert tortoise recovery plan recommended reassessment of its findings and recommendations every 3 to 5 years in light of ongoing research. However, FWS had not reassessed the plan for a number of reasons, such as other pressing needs for limited resources. Given the controversy surrounding some of the recommended restrictions and the large number of acres and land users affected, we recommended that, among other things, FWS reassess the recovery plan and revise as necessary. In response, in 2003, FWS appointed a committee to carry out a scientific assessment of the desert tortoise recovery plan in advance of any renewal or revision of the plan. The committee reported their findings in October 2004. Primary findings were that the recovery plan was fundamentally strong, but that it could benefit substantially from revision in several areas. FWS issued a draft revised recovery plan in August 2008, based on this assessment.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the most effective steps are taken to protect the tortoise, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop and implement a coordinated research strategy that would link land management decisions with research results. To develop such a strategy, the Director should evaluate current efforts to consolidate scientific information and existing proposals for integrating scientific information into land management decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our December 2002 report "Endangered Species: Research Strategy and Long-term Monitoring Needed for Mojave Desert Tortoise Recovery Program," we found that government agencies have taken steps to protect the desert tortoise habitat, but the effectiveness of these strategies is unknown. Research was underway, but had not assessed the effectiveness of the protective actions. We recommended that the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) develop and implement a coordinated research strategy. In response, Interior has taken a number of actions to coordinate research and land management decisions that collectively represent a significant commitment to addressing our recommendation. First, in 2004, FWS created a Desert Tortoise Recovery Office (DTRO) that organizes meetings of the the Desert Tortoise Management Oversight Group, which federal, state and local land managers and researchers attend. Second, in 2006, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report that evaluated the effectiveness of recovery actions and made recommendations for additional science and monitoring, which the DTRO and its cooperators are working to implement. Most significantly, the revised draft recovery plan for the tortoise, which was issued in August 2008, places a strong emphasis on coordinating research and management.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the most effective steps are taken to protect the tortoise, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to periodically reassess the desert tortoise recovery plan to determine whether scientific information developed since its publication could alter implementation actions or allay some of the uncertainties about its recommendations.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In our December 2002 report "Endangered Species: Research Strategy and Long-term Monitoring Needed for Mojave Desert Tortoise Recovery Program," we found that government agencies have taken steps to protect the desert tortoise habitat, but population trend monitoring is essential to understanding how desert tortoises are faring and to ultimately delist the species. A lack of funding assurances may hamper efforts to collect rangewide population monitoring information needed to assess the current status of the desert tortoise. We recommended that the Department of the Interior work with other agencies to identify and consider alternative ways to ensure continued funding, such as through memorandums of agreement. A number of federal and state land management have signed a memorandum of agreement for conserving and enhancing the California deserts for current and future generations, including carrying out recovery actions for the desert tortoise. Signatories include the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and others. These entities meet regularly to discuss impacts on the California desert and what resources and management actions are needed to address these impacts including actions for desert tortoise recovery. In addition, the agencies on the Desert Tortoise Management Oversight Group are preparing to sign a charter for their group that will include a commitment to seek funding for monitoring.

    Recommendation: To ensure that needed long-term monitoring of the desert tortoise is sustained, the Secretary of the Interior should work with the Secretary of Defense and other agencies and organizations involved in tortoise recovery to identify and assess options for securing continued funding for rangewide population monitoring, such as developing memorandums of understanding between organizations.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) did not provide reports for expenditures on endangered species in fiscal years 2005 and 2006 to Congress until December 2008. FWS has gathered data needed for the fiscal year 2007 report and expects to send it to Congress in early 2009. An FWS official attributed the delays primarily to delays in receiving information from several state agencies on their expenditures for endangered species. FWS is implementing a new process for collecting data from states and is now working to complete the reports in a more timely fashion.

    Recommendation: To provide for more timely reporting of expenditures for endangered species, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue the annual expenditure reports as required by the law, and to advise Congress if reports are incomplete because not all agencies have provided the information requested.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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