For Immediate Release, June 11, 2009
Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity, (323) 654-5943
Joan Taylor, Sierra Club, (760) 408-2488
Terry Weiner, Desert Protective Council, (619) 342-5524
Suit to Challenge Slashing of Habitat for Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep
LOS ANGELES— Conservation groups today filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for reducing critical habitat for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep by 55 percent. In April 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reduced its 2001 habitat designated of 844, 897 acres to just 376,938 acres. The flawed designation is unsupported by the agency’s own science and was made to accommodate urban sprawl. Today’s notice, sent by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Desert Protective Council, Desert Survivors, and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 60 days to correct flaws in the habitat designation or be sued.
“This designation is a blueprint for sprawl-induced extinction, not recovery,” said Ileene Anderson, biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s duty is to save endangered bighorn, not sprawl.”
The new designation abandons protections for migration corridors, steep slopes, alluvial terraces and canyon bottoms — all critical to the bighorn’s survival and recovery. Protections would be vastly reduced in the San Jacinto Mountains and on private and tribal lands in and around the Coachella Valley, where much of the alluvial fan and canyon bottom land would be removed despite the agency’s admission that these areas are critical to the survival of endangered Peninsular bighorn.
“This habitat reduction is a huge blow to Peninsular bighorn recovery,” said Joan Taylor, conservation chair for the local Sierra Club group in the Coachella Valley. The group has long been embroiled in the controversy surrounding hillside development in the mountains and canyons around Palm Springs. “Nothing is different about bighorn biology since the original 2001 critical habitat determination, but the politics have changed. The Fish and Wildlife Service has caved to special-development interests, and the bighorn have gotten the shaft in the process.”
The re-designation was compelled by a lawsuit brought by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and industry groups that challenged the 2001 critical habitat designation. The Service eliminated all tribal lands from the final critical habitat designation.
The Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan for Peninsular bighorn sheep, approved in 2000, says that access to the rich forage in canyon areas provides bighorn ewes with nutrients needed for nursing their lambs at a crucial time in the baby sheep’s development. Canyon areas also are important for bighorn movement. The drastically reduced critical habitat designation severely fragments habitat needed for endangered bighorn survival and recovery.
“The bighorn is an icon of the Peninsular ranges. People from all over the world travel to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to spot the sheep browsing on cliffs and mountaintops above water sources,” said Terry Weiner, conservation coordinator for the Desert Protective Council. “The removal of protections from habitat in the washes and alluvial fans of the bighorn’s summer habitat ranges thereby promotes the demise of this fragile, beloved bighorn.”
“Yet again, politics trumped science and the facts did not matter. We cannot let such an egregious reduction of critical habitat to go unchallenged,” said Drew Feldmann, president of the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.
Peninsular bighorn are known for both the characteristic large, spiral horns of the males and the species’ ability to survive in the dry, rugged mountains dividing the desert and coastal regions of California. The Peninsular Ranges population of desert bighorn inhabits the rugged desert mountains running from the San Gorgonio Pass south into Baja California. Once the most numerous of desert bighorn, the U.S. population of Peninsular bighorn plummeted from 1,171 sheep in 1974 to a mere 276 by 1996. The species gained state status as rare and threatened in 1971, but was not listed by the federal government as an endangered population until 1998.
In 2001, in response to efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated more than 840,000 acres of mountainous and canyon habitat as critical habitat. In the decade since being listed as an endangered species, the population has increased to 800, which still represents only a fraction of the historic population. Known as the “bighorn of the inverted mountain ranges,” Peninsular bighorn are restricted to lower slopes due to the dense chaparral that grows at higher elevations in these mountains, which forces the species to live near urban areas in the Coachella Valley.