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Dunes users denied chance to count endangered species

April 05, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

An effort to conduct a plant-by-plant count of endangered species in the closed areas of the local sand dunes by the La Verne-based American Sand Association has been rejected by the federal government.

ASA president Vince Brunasso said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is holding the off-road group to the letter of a federal court order limiting entry to certain closed areas to government vehicles on government business.

Brunasso said ASA is prepared to spend $64,000 to hire biologists to count the plants, and has offered environmental groups and BLM the opportunity to accompany the biologists.

With the main area of more than 48,000 acres closed to off-road vehicles, Brunasso said it is impractical to enter on foot to conduct the study. He also said the plant of main concern, Pierson's milkvetch, has been in bloom for about six weeks and will be all but gone when summer arrives, making it important to conduct the count now.

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"It doesn't appear that any one else but us is concerned about the plants; only in keeping the area closed," he said.

But El Centro BLM field manager Greg Thomsen said ASA representatives are welcome to accompany BLM on its count of the plants, and in fact, he said, ASA representatives and environmental group representatives are in the field with BLM this week counting plants.

Thomsen said ASA will not be allowed to enter the closed areas in vehicles. The decision, he said, was made in BLM's Riverside office. That decision is being appealed to the state office in Sacramento.

"The interpretation was the settlement doesn't allow other vehicles, separate from BLM, to enter the area," Thomsen said.

The closures are part of five interim agreements resulting from negotiations between the BLM, three environmental groups — the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Those groups filed a lawsuit against BLM alleging it failed to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on potential impacts to endangered species from a wide range of activities allowed in the sand dunes. Also party to the settlements were off-highway vehicle groups.

The order, signed in November by federal District Court Judge William Alsup, in San Francisco, states, "BLM shall close four areas of the Algodones Dunes to OHV and other vehicle use. Official government vehicles conducting monitoring or other legitimate governmental activities shall be allowed inside the closed areas."

Although ASA has been invited to accompany BLM in its monitoring efforts, ASA's Brunasso said BLM's efforts are limited in scope and will not result in an accurate count.

"We can't go off the transects," Brunasso said.

The method used by BLM to count plants is through the use of transects, that is by dividing the area into 34 randomly selected transects.

Thomsen said he has confidence in that counting system.

Meanwhile, a desert ecologist for the lead plaintiff, Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, Daniel Patterson, said part of the problem facing ASA's study is that ASA has failed to provide Patterson with a copy of ASA's proposed monitoring methodology.

Patterson intimated that should he find the methodology, likely to provide scientific information of value to the BLM, it might be possible all of the groups involved in the settlement could agree ASA could enter the closed areas with vehicles and conduct its count.

"They really couldn't give me any details at all" about the protocol, Patterson said, adding CBD has not "ruled out" the possibility of some kind of arrangement being arrived at.

Brunasso said the study would be conducted by reputable biologists with more than 30 years of experience in the field.

"We look at this as mainly a stall tactic on (Patterson's) part that makes us spend our resources trying to justify our means, and there really is no reason to question the protocols because this is a reputable scientific firm with over 30 years experience," Brunasso said.

Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.

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