They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), intending to protect the likes of eagles and grizzlies and bison. Instead it has been used by federal bureaucrats to label as endangered or threatened all manner of bugs, weeds, reptiles and minnows — jeopardizing economic activity from fishing to logging to mining to livestock grazing.

Since 1973, 2,000 species have been listed under the ESA as endangered or threatened. Of those, only 20 species — 1 percent — have sufficiently recovered to warrant delisting.

Meanwhile, federal and state government spending on protecting listed species has approached $2 billion a year in recent years.

The Interior Department continues to list species under the ESA and issue land use restrictions that it claims will prevent the need for future listings of such species as greater sage grouse and other species, despite the department’s spectacular and expensive failure to conserve species already on its extensive list.

Perhaps the most telling example of the department’s actions not only failing to accomplish its goals but likely to have harmed a species is the desert tortoise, listed as threatened in 1990.

Even though desert tortoises thrived in the new housing and business developments in Southern Nevada, where tender grasses and water were suddenly more abundant, developers were charged a mitigation fee of $550 per acre so a Desert Tortoise Conservation Center could be created. The center was closed in 2014 due to a budget shortfall.

According to a Clark County spokesman, that county alone has collected almost $43 million in tortoise mitigation fees since 2001. During that same timeframe almost $130 million has been spent on conserving the 78 species covered in the county’s Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

Ruby Valley rancher Cliff Gardner has been studying the way the federal land agencies have been handling the desert tortoise conservation effort and has found several flaws, including the presumption that human development is leading to a decline in the beasts’ habitat and therefore their total population.

Gardner notes that scholars who have pored over the diaries and letters of explorers of Nevada and the region — such as Francisco Garces, Jedadiah Smith, Kit Carson, Peter Skeen Ogden, Antonio Armijo and John C. Fremont — found almost no mention of edible game such as grouse or tortoises. It was not until the settlers started grazing livestock and improving water sources and shooting predators that these began to flourish.

Range ecologist and former Forest Service employee Vernon Bostick, one of the experts cited by Gardner, has been quoted for decades in newspapers and magazines as arguing that the very practices advocated by the federal land bureaucracy is actually causing any perceived decline in tortoise population.

Writing in Rangelands magazine in 1990, Bostick noted, “The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 ended the free-for-all, get-all-you-can-while-you-can, uncontrolled grazing which had destroyed the range resource on the public domain. Every decade since the original reduction of roughly 50 percent in grazing use, the Bureau of Land Management has made reductions in the amount of livestock use permitted.

Permitted use today is only about ten percent of the livestock use that occurred during the free range days. If the conservative grazing management that is

being practiced today has such a detrimental impact on desert tortoise populations, how could the species have survived through all those years of uncontrolled livestock grazing?”

But BLM managers argue cattle are a danger to tortoises, especially in the spring when hatchlings emerge, and have denied grazing permits during that time when cattle can gain the most weight.

In another essay, Bostick observed that cattle grazing crops foliage closer to the ground and causes new shoots to appear for the low-to-the-ground toothless, gizzardless tortoise to eat.

“A favorite food of desert tortoises is fresh cow dung …” Bostick adds. “The more cows on the range, the more watering places there will be for tortoises, and the more likely it will be that a tortoise will find a life sustaining cow-pie …” Dung also contains nutrients. Fewer tortoises are found where grazing has been prohibited, such as the Nevada Test Site.

Gardner also notes that in the 1950s predator control bounties were ended and the use of poisons prohibited. This led to a boom in the population of ravens, fox, skunks, badgers and coyotes — all of which feed on tortoises. Dozens of hollow tortoise shells are often found beneath perches of ravens.

The feds never seem to learn from their failures.


Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at He also blogs at