A coalition of conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government over the former President Trump administration’s decision to construct a new four-lane highway through a national conservation area in southern Utah that includes protected habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise.
In the suit filed on Friday, the group Conserve Southwest Utah stated that the road through part of the “sensitive and scenic” Red Cliffs area would put the tortoise and several other species at risk.
But Highway supporters say the road construction balances wildlife protection with the need to keeping traffic moving in the St. George area, one of the fastest-growing parts of the country.
Conservationists argue there are alternative routes that would solve vehicle congestion problems in the area and the decision to cut through protected land sets a dangerous precedent.
Mojave desert tortoises, a threatened species, weigh up to 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) and grow to about 6 inches (15 centimeters) high. They can live up to 80 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and spend up to 95% of their lives underground. Their historic range includes parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.
Roads are problematic for the tortoises due to the noise they bring, garbage and lights, as well as the possibility of the tortoises being hit by cars as they slowly make their way across pavement, said Tom Butain, board president for Conserve Southwest Utah.
“Roads are one of the biggest problems tortoises have,” he said.