Bush Administration Set to Undermine Habitat Protections for Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

For Immediate Release

Bush Administration Set to Undermine Habitat Protections for Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - The Bush administration's Fish and Wildlife Service today released a proposal that moves closer to stripping critical habitat protections from the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. The proposal would add just 36,240 acres to an October 2007 plan that reduced protected habitat to 384,410 acres - a reduction from the 2001 designation that protected 844,897 acres of habitat.

The 420,650 acres now proposed could be further reduced by the Fish and Wildlife Service based on "economic exclusions" to accommodate development. All told, the new proposal would slash critical habitat to less than half of the acreage protected in 2001.

The new proposal abandons protections for critical 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 cut, despite the agency's admission that these areas are critical to the survival of endangered Peninsular bighorn.

"Today's revised proposal is a blueprint for extinction, not recovery," said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "This plan would eliminate connectivity between ewe groups and strip protections in habitat essential for recovery including many areas of essential alluvial fan and canyon bottom habitat."

"This proposal 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 administration has caved to special development interests, and the bighorn have gotten the shaft in the process."

The redesignation 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 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.

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 bighorn range from the San Gorgonio Pass south through the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument and Anza Borrego State Park to the Mexican border and into Baja California. 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.

At the time of listing the U.S. population of the species was estimated at 400 individuals. With protections in place, that number had risen to more than 700 in 2006, which still represents only a fraction of the historic population of a species once considered the most numerous of desert bighorn sheep.

A public hearing on the issue will be held September 10th in Palm Desert, Calif. The Fish and Wildlife Service will be accepting public comments on the draft economic analysis and revised proposed designation for 60 days until October 27th.

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