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''We aim to obtain urgently needed habitat protection for this rare and beautiful raptor - Aplomado falcons have returned to New Mexico skies, but they're encountering tremendous threats from oil and gas drilling''
Santa Fe, NM - A coalition of environmental groups today challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) refusal to designate critical habitat for the endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. WildEarth Guardians, the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint against the Service in federal court in Santa Fe under the Endangered Species Act, citing the agency’s failure to make a timely determination on their petition. The petition was filed over three years ago, and the law requires a finding within one year of receipt of citizen petitions.
“We aim to obtain urgently needed habitat protection for this rare and beautiful raptor,” stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians. “Aplomado falcons have returned to New Mexico skies, but they’re encountering tremendous threats from oil and gas drilling on the ground.”
Sightings of the falcon have increased in New Mexico in recent years. In the summer of 2002, for the first time in fifty years, a pair of Aplomado Falcons successfully bred in the wild, fledging three young in New Mexico’s boot heel. Falcons have continuously occupied that area since 2000. Falcons showed up on Otero Mesa last summer, near an area likely to be drilled by oil and gas companies and were spotted in the fall on the Fort Bliss Military Reservation, in an area on which increased off-road maneuvers and over-flights have been proposed.
Critical habitat designation for the falcon would enhance protection for the falcon’s habitat. Habitat loss and degradation was cited as one of the leading factors in the falcon’s original decline. Scientific research, based on Service data, has demonstrated that species with critical habitat designation are twice as likely to recover as those lacking such protections.
Said Rosmarino, “The Service is dragging its heels on protecting falcon habitat, despite the role that habitat loss has played in the original disappearance of the Aplomado from the U.S. We need to welcome this bird back by protecting the Chihuahuan desert grassland on which it depends and for which it is a bellwether.”
The groups argued in their petition that the original basis for excluding critical habitat-that no birds existed in the United States-is indefensible given increased sightings of the falcon in southern New Mexico. Since 1990, there have been 43 credible sightings of Aplomado Falcons in the state. The Service, other government agencies, and scientists all describe a natural recolonization process being underway. Recent scientific articles have depicted an existing falcon population spanning southern New Mexico and northern Chihuahua.
WildEarth Guardians sent a 30-page letter to the Service in December 2004, accompanied by over 160 documents which demonstrate continued threats to falcons and their habitat, and overwhelming evidence that there is a population of falcons resident in the bootheel and possibly Otero Mesa. Besides oil and gas, additional threats to falcons and their habitat include livestock grazing, military operations on White Sands and Fort Bliss, pesticides, hunting, electrocution, and prey base depletion. “There is overwhelming science pointing to the need to safeguard aplomado habitat. The Service is dodging a common sense approach to endangered species recovery: protect their habitat and they will come,” stated Rosmarino.
WildEarth Guardians seeks to preserve and restore native wildlands and wildlife in the American Southwest through fundamental reform of public policies and practices. The Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance works to encourage the understanding, appreciation and protection of all the elements of the Chihuahuan Desert. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is a national non-profit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values and protecting public employees who protect our environment. The groups are represented in the lawsuit by James J. Tutchton and Robin Cooley at the Environmental Law Clinical Partnership, University of Denver, Sturm College of Law.