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Habitat Conservation Plan expires after 20 years of protecting tortoises; renewal efforts continue

Habitat Conservation Plan expires after 20 years of protecting tortoises; renewal efforts continue

ST. GEORGE – It has been a long road, but the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan has turned 20 years old – and expired – on March 14. However, the renewal process is ongoing.

Map of desert tortoise recovery areas | Image courtesy of Washington County, St. George News
Map of desert tortoise recovery areas | Image courtesy of Washington County, St. George News | Click image to enlarge

The Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, which set aside 62,000 acres of protected tortoise habitat as the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, has been controversial but effective. It has preserved the desert tortoise on the reserve while still allowing development to continue on tortoise habitat in other parts of Washington County.

Washington County applied for renewal in January 2015, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who oversee the process have said that the existing permit would remain in place even after the expiration date, as long as there are good-faith negotiations underway. The main obstacle to renewing the Habitat Conservation Plan has been acquiring the remaining private property within the reserve.

History

The Mojave desert tortoise was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1989. In 1990, a steering committee was formed by Washington County, and in 1995, the Habitat Conservation Plan was submitted for approval.

In 1996, the Habitat Conservation Plan was signed by Washington County, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Ivins City.

With the signing of the plan, an incidental take permit was issued, allowing approximately 12,000 acres of  tortoise habitat to be developed in other parts of the county. Of that 12,000 acres, only about half has been developed at this point.

A Mohave desert tortoise, Santa Clara, Utah, March 5, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News
Mohave desert tortoise, Santa Clara, Utah, March 5, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

Washington County has spent more than $10.5 million to create and maintain the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Assistant County Attorney Eric Clarke told the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee in a recent meeting.

Costs include education, tortoise monitoring, habitat restoration and the purchase of grazing permits, as well as funding biologists and helping species besides the desert tortoise.

The county now has a volunteer trail steward program, where people can volunteer to go out and help maintain the area. The county has also purchased and installed 85 miles of fencing along the border of the reserve.

“If you look at the map of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, you can see that the entire southern boundary is surrounded by municipal development,” Clarke said.

“This is a place where people live, and obviously one of the goals of the Habitat Conservation Plan is striking that balance to help the endangered species recover and still allow people to maintain their lifestyle.”

Recreation

Red Cliffs National Conservation Area | Image courtesy of Bureau of Land Management
Red Cliffs National Conservation Area | Image courtesy of Bureau of Land Management, St. George News | Click image to enlarge

One benefit of the Habitat Conservation Plan agreement has been the preservation of a vast, beautiful area which has become popular with recreational users. Trails in the reserve are open to hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, with some restrictions.

BLM data shows that between October 2014 and September 2015, the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area saw 125,000 visitors, and the Red Mountain Wilderness area had 27,000.

Those figures don’t take into account areas accessed through the Ivins and St. George or in Snow Canyon State Park, Habitat Conservation Plan administrator Bob Sandberg said.

Land acquisition

Acquiring the remaining private property within the reserve has been a sticking point and is the main obstacle to renewing the Habitat Conservation Plan agreement. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are not requiring that all private property be acquired before renewing the agreement, but they do want good-faith negotiations underway.

A handful of property owners still hold 1,288 acres within the reserve, and the remaining private property must either be purchased outright or traded for land of equal value. Developer Bob Brennan is the largest landowner, with approximately 800 acres still in the reserve.

Proposed Long Valley exchange parcel | Image courtesy Washington County Geographical Information Systems, St. George News
Proposed Long Valley exchange parcel | Image courtesy Washington County Geographical Information Systems, St. George News | Click image to enlarge

Brennan has been pushing for cash payment or exchange property of equivalent value; however, his proposal for an exchange involving land in the Sand Hollow State Park/Sand Mountain off-highway vehicle area has been met with vigorous opposition from local off-road users and groups.

Another exchange of Brennan’s property for 600 acres in the Long Valley area is moving forward without controversy. This acreage could be exchanged for between 80 and 180 acres of Brennan’s land in the reserve. The final numbers depend on the appraised value of the two properties.

Money for purchasing property outright has been hard to come by, although officials have made repeated efforts to secure funding through Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other sources.

Dawna Ferris-Rowley, who manages both the Red Cliffs and Beaver Dam Wash national conservation areas for the BLM, has also been working to find funding to acquire property in the Red Cliffs Reserve.

Approximately $800,000 has become available from previous sales of BLM property, Ferris-Rowley told the Habitat Conservation Plan advisory committee March 22, and another sale is underway on six parcels of BLM land. Money raised from that sale will be available for the purchase of inholdings, Ferris-Rowley said.