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U.S., Ranchers Ordered to Work Out Relocation of Cattle to Save Tortoises

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

An administrative law judge, in a convoluted, 111-page decision, has ordered the federal government and a group of ranchers back to the table to hammer out a plan to remove cattle from fragile desert land occupied by a threatened tortoise.

But what did he mean? That--in a dispute that is endemic of the Bush administration’s standoff with environmental advocates--depends on whom you ask.

As environmentalists press the government to proceed with plans to relocate the cattle by Friday, federal officials said the judge’s decision effectively eliminated that deadline. Environmentalists are threatening to go to court as early as Monday in an attempt to hold the government, if it doesn’t start removing the cattle, in contempt of court.

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According to the environmentalists, federal officials, especially Interior Secretary Gale Norton, are using the judge’s Aug. 24 decision to weaken a desert protection settlement signed in January. Once again, the environmentalists charge, the Bush administration is allowing the interests of private enterprise to trump ecological concerns.

The impact: A key grazing season for the desert tortoise, a threatened species, begins shortly. Cattle eat most of the tortoises’ food, trample the rest and import nonnative plants on their fur and hooves, said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. At that point, Patterson said, the tortoises are reduced to a dangerous “junk food diet” that could bring them to the brink of extinction.

“The tortoise needs protection now,” Patterson said. “It can’t afford to be whittled away by political stalling. [The government] cannot squirm out of this.”

Federal officials said they are trying to follow the judge’s orders to coordinate the removal of cattle with the ranchers who have traditionally used public land for grazing. The decision, they said, makes the Friday deadline impossible to meet.

“Getting new decisions enacted and in place by the 7th isn’t very realistic,” said Jan Bedrosian, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management congressional and legislative affairs specialist in Sacramento. “But we also don’t want to say that we’re ignoring that deadline. We’re going to do our best to meet it as rapidly as we can.”

In January, two days before President Bush’s inauguration, the Bureau of Land Management and several environmental groups reached what was billed as a landmark agreement to protect millions of acres between the eastern Sierra and the Mexican border. Most of the land was inside the California Desert Conservation Area, created in 1976.

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The agreement settled a lawsuit filed last year by environmentalists, and imposed restrictions on activity that threatens the fragile landscape, from trail use to ranching.

But the legal settlement quickly degenerated into accusations that the federal government was attempting to undermine some provisions.

This spring, a federal judge in San Francisco threatened to hold government officials in contempt of court after they backed off a portion of the settlement that would have forced ranchers off half a million acres in the Mojave Desert. The government agreed to move forward with the provisions.

In the meantime, ranchers who have long grazed their cattle on publicly owned land in the desert challenged a portion of the legal settlement requiring the Bureau of Land Management to remove the cows before Sept. 7. One of the traditional grazing seasons runs from Sept. 7 through Nov. 7--a period that coincides with one of the tortoise’s most active periods.

After two weeks of hearings, Harvey C. Sweitzer, an administrative law judge with the U.S. Department of the Interior, ordered the BLM to better coordinate that portion of the settlement with the ranchers.

The judge’s ruling largely upheld environmental organizations’ claim that cattle grazing is destructive to the desert tortoise. Sweitzer rejected the ranchers’ claims that the environmental restrictions were “arbitrary and capricious.”

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However, the magistrate found that the Bureau of Land Management had not taken enough steps to “coordinate, consult and cooperate” with the ranchers before moving forward with the removal of the cattle. On that front, Bedrosian said, “he didn’t equivocate. We failed to comply.”

The ranchers’ Wyoming attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for Norton and the U.S. Department of Interior, issued a statement saying Friday’s deadline is now impossible to meet--and blaming the Clinton administration for placing the federal government in a jam.

“The previous administration made promises that were impossible to keep and forced the case into this unfortunate and unavoidable position,” Pfeifle said. “We made a good-faith effort to meet an impossible schedule and provide fairness to all parties. Our goal is to find common ground and consensus to both protect the desert tortoise and its habitat and allow family ranchers to provide for their families and continue with their way of life.”

The Interior Department’s response has enraged environmentalists. They said the judge’s order was delivered nearly two weeks ago, giving the federal government plenty of time to work with the ranchers before removing the cattle by Friday.

“To claim that this is an impossible schedule is outrageous,” Patterson said.

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