Despite numerous land controls and at least $100 million in government funds, it is unclear if efforts to save the threatened Mojave desert tortoise are working, the General Accounting Office reported late last month. The office recommended a research plan to link land management decisions and recovery plans together, among other items. GAO, in consultation with experts at the National Academy of Sciences, agreed the 1990 Endangered Species Act listing of the entire Mojave desert tortoise population, the subsequent critical habitat designation and recovery plan were reasonable, given the scientific data FWS had at the time. The scientists said increases in diseases and habitat loss, among other threats, were important factors making the listing necessary. However, the GAO report found that land managers and FWS do not have the management tools they need to measure the species' current status and evaluate the effectiveness of protections and restrictions in place. "The effectiveness of these actions is unknown because the necessary analyses have not been done," GAO found. "Data are not available to demonstrate population trends so despite actions taken to benefit tortoises, the status of desert tortoise populations is unclear." Specifically, GAO said a lack of strategy for integrating research with management decisions prohibits FWS and land managers from conducting research needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the protective actions or identify additional actions that could help recovery efforts. "Without knowing how effective the protective actions are, the Service and land managers cannot ensure that their limited resources are focused on the most effective actions," GAO said. Desert tortoise habitat extends across millions of acres in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. FWS listed the population as threatened in 1990 and by 1994, designated 6.4 million acres of critical habitat. The recovery plan included restrictions -- some controversial -- on off-road vehicle use, military actions, livestock grazing and land clearing for development along with a monitoring plan to determine when the species reached a stable level. The report said recovery efforts have exceeded $100 million since the species' first listing in 1990, and the overall economic impact on landowners, states, developers and other affected parties is unknown. GAO also pointed to a lack of reassessment of the recovery plan, which is supposed to occur every three to five years, but has not been completed since 1994. "Given the controversy surrounding some of the recommended restrictions and the large number of acres and land users affected, we believe that it is important to ensure that management decisions are supported by research," GAO said. In addition, GAO also suggested FWS work with other organizations to monitor tortoise populations and complete required expenditure reports on time. FWS indicated in the report that it agreed with the findings and aims to work on implementing the recommendations. Bob Williams, field supervisor for FWS's Nevada office said a Jan. 13 meeting is planned between regional managers from FWS, the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and other officials to discuss the report and how to move forward on relevant action items. Meanwhile, Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, noted that while he supports the GAO recommendations, he does not want FWS to neglect implementing other parts of the plan. "We need action now," he said. "We are certainly not going to support additional delay in exchange for on-the-ground action." Patterson said he was pleased the report confirmed that the tortoise needs to be listed and the recovery plan was based on sound science. His interpretation of the report also found that FWS needs to implement key parts of the recovery plan not currently in place. For example, livestock grazing that was supposed to stop is still going on and some off-road vehicle use still occurs, he said. Patterson emphasized that the report does not say the current restrictions or other forms of protection do not work, but that there is no way to tell if they work. "Simply because land managers may have not done adequate reporting on plans they have doesn't mean it doesn't work," Patterson said. Michael Conner, executive director of the Desert Tortoise Preservation Committee said he was disappointed that GAO made no attempt to evaluate scientific literature that evaluates the current trends in tortoise population. He said numerous studies have shown there is a decreasing trend of about 10 percent a year of the animal's population. GAO also did not consider the amount of time involved in measuring the tortoise population since tortoises do not reproduce often and it takes a long time for desert habitat to recover, Connor said. "If you do something beneficial in an area, you're not going to see results next year, but in two decades," Conner said. "It's a failure to appreciate the timeline involved." Conner pointed out that some restrictions now in place resulted from lawsuits brought by conservation groups, not direct action by FWS or other federal agencies. He added that instead of looking just at animal numbers, agencies need to look at habitat quality improvements and other related items. GAO included the Committee's work in a list of actions taken to protect the tortoise in the report. Clark Collins, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a mechanized vehicle-user group, said the report's results show why the group is concerned about restrictions that come from the Endangered Species Act. He said without determining that "our type of recreation" is a problem for animals or plants in restricted areas, there is little proof the restriction is necessary. "We believe that the land management agencies need to wait to order recreation restrictions until they have some basis for them, not just because endangered species may be in the area and recreation use may have a negative impact," Collins said. "Baseline research, with the recreation uses still in place, should be conducted, to determine impacts if any, before assuming that recreation needs to be restricted. Recreationists shouldn't be considered guilty until proven innocent, as is too often the case."