After a 12-month finding for the Sonoran Desert tortoise, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) Service last month declared the species stable and not in need of protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, according to the Service. This is good news for so many of our Arizona ranchers.

“While several of these threats, mainly development and drought, may increase in scope or severity over time, the species and its associated habitat are projected to remain at levels that do not threaten the survival of the Sonoran Desert tortoise in the foreseeable future,” the agency’s Southwest regional office said in a statement.

“This is a big deal for Arizona with FWS’s recent announcement that they are not going to list the Sonoran Desert tortoise as threatened,” said Arizona Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse, a rancher in southern Arizona. “There are several folks who have been fighting this fight for some time and this is great news. Bill Dunn and Walt and Francie Meyer, awarded our environmental award a few years back, have been instrumental in making sure FWS followed a credible review for this species.  If listed, it would have had the same devastating effect the Mojave Desert tortoise did years ago on grazing in Mojave County and beyond.”

In 2015, rancher William “Bill” Dunn wrote in an article regarding the challenges faced with a listing of the Sonoran Desert tortoise, “Have our worst fears come true in Arizona’s desert rangelands? Will one critter finally be the end of the livestock grazing industry because of an agreement between Western Watersheds, Wildearth Guardians and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)? That was certainly the intent of the agreement on the litigant’s part. The Sonoran Desert Tortoise was seen as the tool to do just that. Their petition to the FWS in 2008 was aimed directly at the livestock grazing industry. It was the same strategy they used in the Mojave Desert Tortoise in Southern California, Southern Nevada and Southwestern Utah. In that case, they were successful in eliminating the grazing industry, to be replaced by a government industry; that of studying the tortoise.”

In his article on behalf of Arizona Farm Bureau’s Arizona Agriculture publication, Dunn outlined a strategy to protect the tortoise through best management practices (BMPs), but as importantly explain the work done through the Winkelman NRCD to keep FWS informed including sharing a little-known tortoise study that had been going on for 30 years.  

The ranching Meyer family had been actively studying all aspects of the tortoise on theirs and their neighboring ranches with the help of the University of Arizona where Dr. Walt Meyer was teaching at the time. Using knowledge from that study and with the help of U. of A. Cooperative Extension Economics Department, and Mary Darling, wildlife biologist and longtime tortoise expert they confronted the FWS with enough information to help them to determine that indeed livestock grazing was not a threat to the tortoise.

But the battle has been ongoing. Last month’s announcement, then, is a big win for all involved in sharing the true story of the Sonoran Desert Tortoise’s environment.

“They really took a good look at the literature and the latest information this time,” said Dunn in response to the FWS’s declaration. “They determined that the population is ‘abundant in Arizona and Sonora’ and ‘on the order of hundreds of thousands of extant adults.’ They don’t expect the species to be in trouble ‘for the foreseeable future,’ which is what the ESA requires. No doubt there will be petitions in the future but for now, we are safe. We must appreciate what the Meyers have done to advance the understanding of this species.”

Added Smallhouse, “This is not the first time we've seen that rancher data matters and it’s more important than ever for ranchers to stay vigilant in engaging with agencies and providing their expertise of the resources.”