The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

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


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.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

(520) 623-5252