Nine desert ranchers began making their case Tuesday against plans that would force them to keep their cattle off federal leases for nearly half the year.
Longtime ranchers say the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's impending limits on 500,000 acres for the sake of an imperiled tortoise will mean the end of their livelihood and a chapter of Mojave Desert history.
"It's going to take the viability out of my operation," said Billy Mitchell, a rancher who has about 85 head of cattle on 26,000 acres affected by the BLM plan. "Without that, there is no possible way I can maintain the herd."
About 100 people, mostly ranching families and their supporters, packed the Barstow City Council chambers for the start of an eight-day evidentiary hearing before U.S. Interior Department Administrative Law Judge Harvey C. Sweitzer, who has until Aug. 24 to reach a decision.
The impending rules are the product of a settlement approved in January between the BLM and environmentalists, who had sued over the government's failure to fully implement a recovery plan for the desert tortoise.
The reptile has declined over the years because of development, raven predation, off-road vehicles and grazing, environmentalists say.
The plan would move cattle off the land when the tortoises are most active, from March 1 to June 15 and from Sept. 7 to Nov. 7.
Although recovery efforts are ongoing, it is unclear from recent surveys how tortoises are responding, said Michael Connor, executive director of the Riverside-based Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee.
"It's going to be 10 years before we know whether the numbers are going up," Connor said.
Ranchers said that they are not part of the problem and that grazing might even benefit the tortoise.
Ranchers will present experts in rangeland management to contend that there is little indication that grazing harms tortoises.
"Even the BLM environmental assessment says it isn't really going to make that much difference," said Kenneth Kingsley, senior scientist for SWCA Environmental Consultants of Tucson.
Attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who represents nine ranchers who filed the appeal, said the reasons for the tortoise decline should be more closely examined.