Washington County plans a study to find ways to protect the des-ert tortoise and other rare species while allowing development to proceed.
Commissioner Scott Hirschi said growth in southwestern Utah could be severely limited by the seven plants and animals on the federal list of threatened and endangered species. Twenty-seven other species are candidates for that list.The seven threatened and endangered species in Washington County are the desert tortoise, peregrine falcon, bald eagle, woundfin minnow, Virgin River chub, dwarf bearclaw poppy and Siler cactus. Federal law prohibits most projects that would result in death of an endangered species or loss of its habitat.
Protection of these species poses a particularly serious problem for developers in the St. George area where tortoises and poppies can be found on much of the land they want to convert to golf courses, shopping malls and subdivisions.
Hirschi said county officials are not happy about the restrictions, have doubts about whether it makes any sense to protect these rare plants and animals, but, "Unfortunately, our opinions are academic.
"The Endangered Species Act is the law of the land and whether we like it or not is not really the subject here," he said.
Washington County has decided to take advantage of a 1982 amendment to the Endangered Species Act that allows communities to develop "habitat conservation plans" that provide long-term protection for enough suitable habitat to assure the survival of an endangered species. Once this plan is in place, marginal habitat not needed for the survival of the plant or animal can opened to development.
Hirschi said Washington County will appoint a steering committee to develop the habitat conservation plan. Members will represent such groups as ranchers, environmentalists, water users, recreation groups, city and county government, the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry. The committee will hold its first meeting in January.