Lawsuit filed over critical habitat

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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has filed
a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that too much land was
placed into federal protection for "critical habitat" for the Peninsular
bighorn sheep.

The tribe asserted that the critical habitat designation violates the
Endangered Species Act by not taking into account the economic impact
caused by the designation.

"We are simply asking that the service comply with the law and adequately
evaluate the economic and other impacts of designating critical habitat and
that the service respect the tribe's authority over the management of
tribal resources," said Agua Caliente in a press release.

At issue are differing viewpoints on what constitutes critical habitat for
the sheep, a bighorn subspecies found from the southern California coast
eastward to the inland mountains and south to Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

The animals have been listed as an endangered species since the late 1990s.
Though the population fluctuates slightly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service estimated that there are currently only around 700 Peninsular
bighorn sheep left. A Bureau of Land Management Web site cites development
and other human incursions as the reasons for the Peninsular bighorn's
reduced numbers.

In 1998, a coalition of environmental groups sued the federal government to
protect sheep habitat which eventually led the USFWS in 2001 to designate
845,000 acres in Imperial, San Diego and Riverside counties as critical
habitat for the Peninsular bighorn. Agua Caliente is in Riverside County.

However, Agua Caliente alleged that the USFWS went too far in creating a
critical habitat zone for the sheep. About half of the tribe's 32,000-acre
reservation is now part of the animals' protection area; and the tribe says
that it could add extra tiers of administration, which would negatively
affect the tribe.

Tom Davis, the chief planning officer at Agua Caliente, said the tribe
supports protecting sheep habitats but that the federal designation makes
no sense. The tribe's main argument is that since the sheep reside only on
steep, generally inaccessible terrain, the USFWS's inclusion of more level
ground is puzzling.

The tribe's reservation, which includes areas in downtown Palm Springs,
ranges from that famed desert resort town on the floor of the Coachella
Valley into the nearby San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains. Rugged
canyons, operated as tribal parks, are also part of the reservation.

Davis argued that as the sheep's crucial habitat is in these steeper areas,
the federal government's inclusion of the alluvial fan that enters the
valley is puzzling as well. He also contended that tribal economic
development is not the main cause of the sheep's demise, but predation and
other natural factors are some of the largest causes of Peninsular bighorn
sheep mortality.

The main problem for the tribe, said Davis, is that the federal designation
adds extra layers of bureaucracy to any kind of tribal economic development
and will unfairly impact the tribe.

However, Agua Caliente currently lacks a specific development plan for the
designated area. A few months ago, voters turned down a proposed project
that would have encroached onto the designated area which had won initial
approval from the Palm Springs city council.

Additionally, Davis felt the tribe would make a better determination of
where to protect the species. He said the tribe plans to create its own
proposal that would include about 85 percent of the designated land.

Jane Hendron, a representative for the USFWS office in Carlsbad, Calif.,
could not comment on the lawsuit's specifics as she had yet to review it.

On the more general issue of the Peninsular bighorn sheep, she noted that
the Peninsular subspecies differs from other bighorns of the West in terms
of habitat.

While most people tend to think of bighorn sheep as a high-elevation animal
- as they are in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, where they are found at
8,000 feet and even higher in some cases - this subspecies is unique among
bighorns in that they are very rarely found above 4,000 feet. They often
traverse lower areas, including the Coachella Valley floor, and often will
migrate in search of mates and new forage areas.

Admitting that predation does play a role in bighorn sheep mortality, with
mountain lions being a particular threat, Hendron pointed out that a number
of human-related factors have contributed to such a steep decline of the
species in recent years.

Since much of the Coachella Valley has already been developed, Hendron said
there are fewer places for the sheep to cross in relative safety. She
counted off several human problems that the animals face, including being
hit by cars and eating poisonous plants such as oleander, which grows well
in the desert climate but is highly toxic to animals and humans.

She noted that the USFWS is working with the Agua Caliente tribe on a
tribal habitat conservation plan, and with other governmental agencies and
other entities to craft a comprehensive plan for the entire Coachella
Valley.

A critical habitat mainly affects public lands and private landowners are,
at least in practice, partially exempt. Private landowners are only
affected when they apply for a federal permit or do a project that is tied
to federal funding.