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For Immediate Release, October 7, 2009

Contacts:  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 Challenges Slashing of Habitat Protection for Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

SAN DIEGO, Calif.— Conservation groups today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for slashing critical habitat protections for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. In April 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reduced its 2001 habitat designation of 844, 897 acres to just 376,938 acres – a more-than 55-percent reduction. The flawed designation is unsupported by the agency’s own science and was made to accommodate urban sprawl. Today’s lawsuit challenging it was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Desert Protective Council, Desert Survivors, and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.

“The current critical habitat designation for the Peninsular bighorn sheep is scientifically flawed,” said Ileene Anderson, biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “From 2001 to 2009, solid habitat protection was in place, and the sheep numbers were increasing. But to recover and thrive the sheep need that solid protection to continue.” 

The new designation has abandoned protections for essential migration corridors, steep slopes, alluvial terraces, and canyon bottoms. Scientific studies document these as critical to the bighorn’s survival and recovery. Protections were vastly reduced in the San Jacinto Mountains and around the Coachella Valley, where much of the alluvial fan and canyon bottom land were removed despite the agency’s admission that these areas are critical to the survival of endangered Peninsular bighorn.   

 “This habitat reduction was 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 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 lamb’s development. Canyon areas also are important for bighorn movement. Including these areas in the critical habitat designation and eliminating habitat fragmentation is scientifically documented and required 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. “By removing protection of desert washes and alluvial fans of the bighorn’s summer ranges, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has chosen more desert golf course development and profit for a few over recovery of our fragile, beloved bighorn and protection of the greater public good of preservation of our desert natural heritage.”

“Because politics trumped science, we cannot let such an egregious reduction of critical habitat go unchallenged,” said Drew Feldmann, conservation chairman  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 response to a petition from the Sierra Club.

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. 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 in the narrowing band between the ever-expanding near urban areas in the Coachella Valley.

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