Conservationists petitioned the government on Friday to declare the Sand Mountain blue butterfly endangered, saying off-road vehicles at a Nevada sand dune are destroying its only known habitat.
"It only involves about 1,000 acres of habitat, but it's the only habitat left for this butterfly on the planet," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.
Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act is the only way to save the rare butterfly from extinction, according to the Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association and Public Employees for Environmental Ethics, who were among those petitioning the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The groups allege the Bureau of Land Management has failed to protect the insect at the 600-foot tall Sand Mountain - a popular destination for motorcycles, dune buggies and ATVs on federally managed land about 75 miles east of Reno.
"BLM has kowtowed to the industry and refused to put in place management to protect the wildlife there," Patterson told The Associated Press.
"The BLM calls itself a multiple-use agency, but at Sand Mountain they are a one-use agency and that is intensive, off-road vehicle use," he said.
Off-road vehicle groups don't think the butterfly or its habitat are endangered.
"They are using the blue butterfly as the avenue to try to restrict use," said Richard Hilton, president of the Friends of Sand Mountain, a four-wheel drive club that is encouraging off-roaders to stay out of posted butterfly habitat.
"I guess when you've got outfits like this with millions of dollars at their disposal to sue, us poor working folks have a tough time," he said.
The 2.5-mile long dune 25 miles east of Fallon was formed from the sands of ancient Lake Lahontan, which once covered most of the Great Basin. The Fallon Convention and Tourism Authority estimates 35,000 people annually visit the dune, described as an "off-road playground" on its Web site.
BLM officials said they will work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if more stringent protection is needed.
"We have known from day one (the conservation groups) were not happy we weren't putting an iron curtain up to keep people off the dunes," BLM spokesman Mark Struble said.
"If we don't get cooperation and don't see conditions are right for regeneration of the plants, we will have to take stricter measures," he said.
BLM issued voluntary guidelines last fall asking the public to voluntarily keep off the vegetation that serves as habitat for the butterfly and started passing out leaflets and erecting small directional signs based on recommendations from a citizen advisory panel.
"People have been riding out there the last 30 years and most of the users don't know there has been any problem," Struble said.
Hilton said most people are avoiding the posted areas and the situation is improving.
"But they just started putting up the signs in October. They haven't hardly given it any time to work. We are educating people but we take the stand that BLM needs to go campfire to campfire to explain what is going on and what is going to happen," he said.
BLM biologists plan to report on damage and compliance rates during a meeting next week with a citizen advisory panel. Indications are compliance has been good, but could be better, Struble said.
"If you have 4,000 people out there on a busy holiday weekend and only 5 percent are riding where we don't want them, it can have an impact," he said.
The Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association has been working since 1961 to protect Sand Mountain, said Charles Watson, director of the Carson City-based group.
"BLM ignored earlier scientific studies of the dunes which showed off-road vehicles harmed wildlife and habitat," Watson said.
The sand dune covers 4,795 acres, about 1,000 acres of which the conservationists consider critical to the butterfly.
"Nobody has ever talked about closing down the whole place," Patterson said. "Even if we closed off all the remaining habitat, they would still have 80 percent of the dune, including the tallest parts of the dune where people like to ride up and down."
On the Net:
Bureau of Land Management: http://www.nv.blm.gov/carson/Recreation/Rec-SandMtn.htm
Center for Biological Diversity: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/
Freinds of Sand Mountain: http://www.sandmountain-nv.org/
Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association: http://www.nora.org/