From: Scott Sonner, Associated Press
Published January 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Conservationists Sue Over Nevada Butterfly

RENO, Nev. — Conservationists filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday, seeking federal protections for a rare Nevada butterfly against off-road vehicles at one of the largest sand dunes in the West.


The environmentalists want to force the agency to declare the Sand Mountain blue butterfly an endangered species because its habitat is being destroyed at the only place the insect is known to exist -- the Sand Mountain Recreation Area about 75 miles east of Reno.


Federal protection is the only way to save it from extinction at the 600-foot tall, 2-mile long sand dune where an ancient lake once existed, the lawsuit says.


The dune along U.S. 50 about 25 miles east of Fallon is under the Bureau of Land Management. It attracts an estimated 50,000 off-roaders annually on motorcycles, dune buggies and ATVs.


"BLM has shamefully allowed Sand Mountain to be taken over by destructive off-roading and made many political decisions to avoid upsetting off-roaders that allow continued harm to the dunes' wildlife," said Charles Watson, director of the Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association, one of the plaintiffs.


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The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento accuses the agency of violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to respond to petitions dating to April 2004 seeking federal protection for the butterfly. The act requires the government to provide a preliminary response to such petitions within 90 days and often again within a year.


"It's a stall tactic coming out of hostile politics in Washington," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity based in Arizona, which joined the suit along with the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.


Bob Williams, Nevada supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said there's been no action primarily because of a lack of money.


"We only get a certain amount of money a year to do listing findings," Williams said. Most of that money was spent on sage grouse and pygmy rabbit reviews the past two years, he said.


The agency plans to spend about $35,000 on 90-day review -- probably beginning in June -- to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a full year-long review of the butterfly, he said.


"We do know the butterfly is there and we haven't been able to find it at any other location," Williams said.


The butterfly is dependent on a unique shrub, the Kearney buckwheat, that covers about 1,000 acres of the 4,795 acres of the recreation area. It is found nowhere else.


The Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM have been working with local groups representing a variety of interests to develop a conservation strategy apart from the endangered species process. Tentative plans call for more signs designating approved travel routes and fencing to protect the habitat besides additional law enforcement.


Off-road groups oppose a federal listing.


"If it did become listed, no telling what type of restrictions they could do out there," said Richard Hilton of Reno, a member of the board of the Friends of Sand Mountain.


Instead, the group has joined an effort by the Lahontan Valley Environmental Alliance to develop a conservation strategy. Jeanette Dahl, executive director of the alliance based in Fallon, said the conservation effort involves local governments, tribes and off-road vehicle groups.


Source: Associated Press


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