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Peninsular bighorn sheep
San Jose Mercury News, April 14, 2009

Fish and Wildlife reduces bighorn sheep habitat
By Noaki Schwartz, Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES—U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced on Tuesday it would be reducing the habitat area for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep by more than half across Southern California.

Stephanie Weagley, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the new designation came about because they had refined the process allowing officials to trim areas not critical to the animal's survival. Weagley said she doesn't believe the change will harm the sheep.

"We had acquired more accurate and specific information on the habitat components and areas that were consistently occupied by the sheep," she said.

Lisa Belenky, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, however, blasted the change. The environmental group is considering taking legal steps to challenge the cuts.

"Today's designation is a blueprint for extinction, not recovery," she said.

The change was compelled by a lawsuit filed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and homebuilder associations represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation. The groups challenged the 2001 critical habitat designation that amounted to more than 840,000 acres in San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties.

Damien Schiff, an attorney for the foundation said the 2005 lawsuit was filed because there was too much land designated and the methodology was "too loose." Schiff said he hopes the change will ensure that agencies don't designate more land than necessary to allow a species to recover.

The U.S. population of the Peninsular bighorn has declined from 1,171 in 1974 to 276 by 1996. The sheep are known for their ability to thrive in California's dry mountain regions and the male sheep in particular are recognizable for their large, spiral horns.

The federal government designated the population as endangered in 1998 and since then the population has recovered to about 800 in Southern California.

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