Bush Administration to Slash Half of Protected Habitat for Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep
October 10, 2007
PALM SPRINGS— A new proposal from the Bush administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service will drive endangered sheep further down the path to extinction. The proposal would severely restrict critical habitat for the endangered Peninsular Ranges population of desert bighorn sheep, reducing by nearly 55 percent the area that the agency determined in 2001 was essential for the survival and recovery of this highly endangered animal.
The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal would remove protection for more than half a million acres of Peninsular bighorn habitat. Protections would be vastly reduced on private and tribal lands in and around the Coachella Valley, where much of the alluvial fan and canyon bottom land would be cut. More than 4,500 acres in the San Jacinto Mountains and up to 20,000 acres overall would be excluded for economic reasons — despite the agency’s admission that these areas are critical to the survival of endangered Peninsular bighorn.
“It looks like the Bush administration set Jack the Ripper loose to slash protections,” said Kieran Suckling, policy director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This plan will further the decline of the bighorn by eliminating connectivity between ewe groups and stripping key habitat of protections. It will end protections for the very habitat type that bighorn sheep have already lost most 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, which 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 critical habitat determination, but the politics have changed. What the administration has basically done is to cave to special development interests, and the bighorn have taken 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 who challenged the 2001 critical habitat designation. As a result, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to re-designate all critical habitat for the species by September, 2008.
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 the nutrients needed for nursing their lambs at a crucial time for the baby sheep’s development. Canyon areas are also 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 the characteristic large, spiral horns of the males and for their ability to survive in the dry, rugged mountains dividing the desert and coastal regions of California. They range from the San Gorgonio Pass south through the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument and Anza Borrego State Park to the Mexican border and into Baja California. Gaining state status as rare and threatened in 1971, the species was only listed by the federal government as an endangered population in 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.
The current U.S. population of the species was estimated at 400 individuals at the time of listing. With protections in place, that number has 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.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on the new proposal until December 10, 2007. You can submit your comments regarding the severe restriction of Peninsular Ranges bighorn sheep critical habitat by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.