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Aplomado Falcon Habitat Needs Upgraded Protection - Conservation Groups Warn Fish and Wildlife Service to Provide Critical Habit

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fails to consider a critical habitat petition for the endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon

Santa Fe, NM - April 12. A coalition of environmental groups today threatened to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) for failing to consider a critical habitat petition for the endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon. WildEarth Guardians, the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, and Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sent a notice of intent to sue the Service under the Endangered Species Act given the agency's failure to make a 12-month finding on the groups' petition to designate critical habitat for the Northern Aplomado Falcon. The petition was filed in September 2002, but the Service has yet to publish a determination on its merits, in violation of Endangered Species Act requirements.

The groups argued in their petition that the original basis for excluding critical habitat?that no birds existed in the United States?is indefensible, in light of the fact that it is no longer accurate. 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.

While reintroductions of the falcon have taken place in south and west Texas, the groups are alarmed by the removal of habitat protections that has been 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 this spring to 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 consult with the Service to ensure their actions do not jeopardize aplomado falcons.

According to the petition, protection of habitat is urgently needed for full falcon recovery. A significant and high-profile threat at present is the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's proposal to open up Otero Mesa to oil and gas drilling. Otero Mesa is regarding by federal and state wildlife agencies as important habitat for the northern aplomado falcon.

"Critical habitat for the falcon is especially vital in the face of the Bureau of Land Management's plan to open Otero Mesa up to drilling," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Endangered Species Director for WildEarth Guardians. "Critical habitat for aplomado falcons would provide an important safeguard against federal agency plans which harm falcons or falcon habitat."

The petitioners also point out that 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 1" a year) to reach sufficient heights to provide falcon nests. Biologists have suggested that a yucca plant of sufficient height for a falcon nest would take a century to replace. Overall, the decline of grasslands is a significant trend in the Chihuahuan Desert, and the petition underscores that protecting falcon habitat would help safeguard whole ecosystems in this region.

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.

View the critical habitat petition, the notice of intent to sue, and additional background information at our Aplomado Falcon species page.


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