Desert tortoise
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
An endangered species, the desert tortoise is at the center of a battle in three Southern California counties.
updated 1/5/2005 11:50:47 AM ET 2005-01-05T16:50:47

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to ban off-road vehicles on more than a half million acres in Southern California to protect the endangered desert tortoise.

The ban will be implemented immediately, but BLM officials predict it will last only until a report on the desert tortoise is released by the end of February.

Last week’s injunction has been praised by environmentalists who say it sends a message to the Bush administration and public land agencies that wildlife habitats and endangered species must be protected.

“The court’s ruling checks the abuses of the executive branch, and upholds the Endangered Species Act, America’s most important wildlife law,” said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The ban affects portions of two large desert wildlife areas in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties.

The land is marked with washes popular with off-roaders, who have decried the ruling. They say the tortoise population has been declining because of ravens, drought and disease — not their vehicles.

“Desert tortoises don’t live in washes; they have more sense,” said Ed Waldheim, president of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association. “Desert storms have more impact on the landscape than off-road vehicles ever will.”

Last year, the Supreme Court blocked a lawsuit that accused the federal government of doing too little to protect undeveloped land in Utah from off-road vehicles.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston’s injunction resulted from a lawsuit filed in 2003 by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and two other groups seeking to overturn federal desert management plans.

Anyone caught driving in the washes during the ban could face a $1,000 fine or up to a year in prison, although officials said prison time is unlikely.

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