Agency to Axe 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.