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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A group of off-road enthusiasts has sued the federal government, claiming a decade-long effort to protect the desert tortoise isn't working.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Utah this week, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn't doing the right things to protect the endangered tortoise in the four Western states where it lives.
The standard practice has been to close tortoise habitat to off-road vehicles, cattle grazing and development.
But David Hubbard, a California attorney for the off-road groups, said tortoise populations have continued to drop in the areas that have been closed to vehicles. He thinks it's proof that humans and their machines aren't to blame for the animal's decline.
The lawsuit claims the real reason the tortoise is dying off is the spread of a respiratory tract disease. The off-roaders want the government to focus on curing that disease, rather than barring vehicle access.
Another non-human reason for low-turtle population is the fact that ravens eat baby tortoises, the lawsuit contends.
"We think you can still have mountain biking, cattle and vehicles on the land because when you have these human activities it is easier to manage for the species," said Brian Hawthorne, director of Utah Shared Access Alliance, an off-road vehicle group.
Some environmental advocates aren't so sure.
"I'd be willing to bet my next paycheck that the tortoise population certainly isn't going to benefit by getting run over by off-road vehicles or losing its food source," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director with Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This is not a happy marriage."
On the other hand, "I give them an A-plus for creativity," McIntosh said.
The government has yet to respond to the lawsuit.
The desert tortoise, found in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona, was first listed as threatened in 1989. Since then, the federal government has designated about 6 million acres as critical habitat for the species and has spent more than $100 million on tortoise recovery.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)