Millions spent to 'save' desert tortoise questioned

LAS VEGAS -- Ever since the desert tortoise was declared a threatened species, the government has spent hundreds of millions protecting them.

After pouring through years of expenditure reports, 8 News NOW discovered the amount of taxpayer money spent is actually in the hundreds of millions.

The desert tortoise population continues to decline yet the money continues to flow. There is evidence the government agency that's supposed to keep track of where all the money goes can't say what it was spent on, and has been in no hurry to let decision makers know their efforts aren't working.

The desert tortoise was placed on the threatened list in 1990. To protect the tortoise, the federal government designated 6.4 million acres in Nevada, California, Arizona, and Utah as critical habitat. They restricted off-road vehicle use, prohibited cattle from grazing on public land, and built fences to stop the tortoise from getting run over on the highway. In 2002, 12 years into the recovery effort, the federal government's General Accounting Office noticed something. Even though $100 million had been spent trying to save the tortoise, no one was bothering to check if what they were doing was working.

Ever since they started counting tortoises, the results have been less than encouraging. In 2004, an estimated 359,000 tortoises roamed the desert. Now, there are thought to be around 261,000 tortoises. That's 91,000 fewer tortoises, or a 27 percent decline, despite the fact, an enormous amount has been spent to protect the tortoise.

8 News NOW examined years of expenditure statements filed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. They show since 1990, federal, state, and local governments spent an astounding $227 million on the desert tortoise.

"It's ridiculous. It's absolutely absurd," said Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

He isn't the only one who feels that way. Despite repeated requests to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, a breakdown of what all that money paid for has not been provided. What 8 News NOW got was page after page of background information and confusing charts. It appears no really knows where the $227 million went.

Thanks to an amendment written into the Endangered Species Act, if the numbers become quote "unduly burdensome" for government agencies, they are only required to make a "good faith effort to collect data."

"Sure there should be a stronger effort, but if there were a stronger effort, it would cost you another $10 million to determine where they spent the $200 million," Sisolak said.

Not only is accounting of the millions being spent "incomplete," it's also "slow" in coming. The most recent expenditure report on the desert tortoise is from 2012 which means millions of dollars spent this year and last are -- to this point -- unaccounted for.

"It was death by a thousand cuts," said Jim Moore, Nature Conservancy.

Putting aside issues of money and lax government accounting, environmentalists insist the tortoise is the deserts' canary in a coal mine and saving it remains a worthy cause.

"If this species, which has existed for millions of years and is uniquely adapted to the Mohave desert environment and also is key to the survival of many other species that rely on it, if that species is in trouble then, we're doing something wrong, something is seriously wrong," Moore said.

But for a growing number of Nevada politicians, the money issue is impossible to ignore.

"You're talking millions of dollars being spent that could be better spent on another source. I mean our children are endangered, our seniors are endangered, they're not put on the list, we put tortoises on the list. It's crazy," Sisolak said.

There are 1,535 species on the endangered or threatened list. The desert tortoise is the only one that you're allowed to keep as a pet. Currently, it is thought, there are be between 50,000 to 100,000 living in people's backyards.


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