US sued over road project in Mojave desert tortoise habitat

FILE - In this May 13, 2006, file photo, is a desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve east of Leeds, Utah. A coalition of conservation groups on Friday, June 4, 2021, sued the U.S. government over the Trump administration’s decision to allow construction of a new four-lane highway through the national conservation area in southern Utah that includes protected habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise. (Brain Passey/The Spectrum via AP, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of conservation groups on Friday sued the U.S. government over the Trump administration’s decision to allow construction of a new four-lane highway through a national conservation area in southern Utah that includes protected habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise.

The group Conserve Southwest Utah argued the road through part of the “sensitive and scenic” Red Cliffs National Conservation Area would violate environmental laws and put the tortoise and several other species at risk.

There are alternative routes that would solve vehicle congestion problems in the fast-growing area and the decision to cut through protected land sets a dangerous precedent, said the lawsuit filed against the U.S. Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management.

The coalition of state and national groups that sued hope that Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration will reverse the decision made in January allowing the road just before Trump left office.

Todd Tucci, senior attorney for the Advocates for the West group, called it “inconceivable” that new Interior Secretary Deb Haaland would support the highway.

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the lawsuit. The Bureau of Land Management declined to comment.

Mojave desert tortoises, a threatened species, weigh up to 15 pounds and grow to about 6 inches high. They can live up to 80 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and spend up to 95% of their lives underground. Their historic range includes parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

Roads are problematic for the tortoises because they bring noise, garbage and lights, as well as the possibility of the tortoises being hit by cars as they slowly make their way across pavement, said Tom Butain, board president for Conserve Southwest Utah.

“Roads are one of the biggest problems tortoises have,” he said.

Highway supporters have said the four-lane highway is needed to keeping traffic flowing in the area around the city of St. George, which has a metro area of about 170,000 people and is one of the fastest-growing parts of the U.S.

Officials in Washington County, which encompasses St. George, praised the Trump administration decision to allow the road, saying it strikes a balance between protecting the tortoise and meeting the community’s transportation needs.

Conservationists have long worried that the project would be detrimental to wildlife and landscapes, some recently scorched by wildfires.

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