For Immediate Release, April 13, 2009
Lisa Belenky, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682, ext. 307
Joan Taylor, Sierra Club, (760) 408-2488
Terry Weiner, Desert Protective Council, (619) 342-5524
Agency to Ax Habitat for Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep
LOS ANGELES— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a proposal today that would substantially reduce critical habitat protections for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. The proposal designates just 376,938 acres, which is a 55-percent reduction from a 2001 designation of 844,897 acres. The reduction appears to have been made to accommodate urban sprawl.
“Today’s designation is a blueprint for extinction, not recovery,” said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.“ This plan eliminates connectivity between ewe groups and strips protections in habitat essential for recovery, including many areas of essential alluvial fan and canyon bottom habitat.”
The new proposal abandons protections for migration corridors, steep slopes, and intervening alluvial terraces and canyon bottoms — all critical for 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 proposed reduction in critical habitat would severely fragment 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. “This proposal to remove the washes and alluvial fans of the bighorn’s summer habitat ranges from protection thereby promotes the demise of this fragile, beloved bighorn.”
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.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Sierra Club is a nonprofit conservation organization of over 732,000 members dedicated to exploring, enjoying, and protecting the wild places of the earth. The local Tahquitz Group represents over a thousand Sierra Club members in eastern Riverside County and the Morongo Basin of San Bernardino County.
The Desert Protective Council (DPC) is a nonprofit membership organization whose mission is to preserve the unique cultural, biological, scenic, spiritual and recreational resources of the southwest deserts through advocacy, land stewardship and education.