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Protection Sought for Aplomado Falcon Habitat: Fish and Wildlife Service Refuses to Consider Endangered Species Act Petition

A coalition of environmental groups today challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) refusal to consider designation of critical habitat for the endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon

Santa Fe, NM - Jan. 3. A coalition of environmental groups today challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) refusal to consider designation of critical habitat for the endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon. WildEarth Guardians, the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, and Southwest 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 12-month finding, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

Critical habitat designation for the falcon would enhance protection for Otero Mesa, an important desert grassland that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) intends to open up to private oil and gas drilling. The BLM’s controversial plan is being challenged by Governor Richardson and a broad coalition of citizens who want Otero Mesa protected for water, wildlife, and wilderness values. “Otero Mesa is a precious expanse of Chihuahuan Desert grassland which must not be squandered for a couple of weeks worth of natural gas,” said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Conservation Director for WildEarth Guardians. “A transition to clean, renewable, domestic energy - solar and wind - is urgent. Beholden to big oil companies, the Bush Administration is standing in the way of the clean energy key to national security.”

In the 1990s, government biologists recognized that the show of commercial quantities of gas on the Bennett Ranch Unit, and a subsequent industry push for drilling permits and new leases, could place a hotspot of falcon habitat on Otero Mesa in grave peril. As a result, the BLM proposed under the Clinton Administration extensive habitat protections on Otero Mesa to assure that oil and gas development did not set back falcon recovery. These proposed protections dissolved under the George W. Bush Administration, which made major changes to the plan for the Mesa.

Said Rosmarino, “The falcon and the Endangered Species Act has benefited the public interest by forcing the BLM to fully consider the ecological impacts of opening Otero Mesa up to destructive drilling and road-building.” Rosmarino continued, “Unfortunately, under the Bush Administration, the BLM is increasingly beholden to big oil companies, rather than common sense, good science, and the public’s interest in preserving our last remaining wild places.”

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 several verified sightings of the falcon in southern New Mexico since 1991. Over the last decade aplomados have begun to naturally recolonize historic Chihuahuan Desert grasslands habitat in the Southwest, especially in New Mexico, culminating most recently in the first successful nesting effort in 50 years, near Deming. Falcons located in the northern Chihuahua region of Mexico are thought to be part of the same population as the falcons in New Mexico’s bootheel region.

WildEarth Guardians sent a 30-page letter to the Service last week, 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.

view the December 23 letter to the Service and critical habitat petition.

Background Information

While reintroductions of the falcon have taken place in south and west Texas, the groups are alarmed by the removal of Endangered Species Act protections by FWS that is a central part of those reintroduction efforts. Negotiations are currently underway for reintroducing falcons into New Mexico despite an already existing population in the state. The Service is expected to soon publish a proposed rule to conduct falcon reintroduction in New Mexico under an experimental, non-essential designation, which would waive many Endangered Species Act protections, such as the requirement that federal agencies ensure their actions do not jeopardize aplomado falcons or set back their recovery.

A report released by the Center for Biological Diversity, which analyzed Service data, found that found that critical habitat designation significantly improves the likelihood of species recovery. Those wildlife and plants with critical habitat protection were twice as likely to be improving in biological status as those without.

According to the groups who filed today’s lawsuit, protection of habitat is urgently needed for full falcon recovery. In the past five quarterly lease sales, BLM has leased 65,000 acres of falcon habitat, thus exposing it to drilling. Additional aplomado acreage is being leased by the NM State Land Office. In addition, over a century of livestock grazing has transformed much of the falcon's habitat from high quality black grama grassland to scrubland, thereby degrading its suitability for falcons. Livestock also damage soaptree yucca and may limit the ability of this old-growth desert plant (growing upwards at a glacial one inch per year) to reach sufficient heights to provide falcon nests. Biologists have suggested that a yucca plant suitable for a falcon nest would take over century to replace. Overall, the decline of grasslands is a significant trend in the Chihuahuan Desert that falcon habitat protection would help address.

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. Southwest 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.

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