Congressional Proposals on Military Land Withdrawals At Issue

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Defenders Sues Defense Department to Protect Endangered Sonoran Pronghorn & Its Desert Habitat

(06/30/1999) - Washington, D.C. -- Defenders of Wildlife today filed suit in Federal District Court against the Department of Interior, U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, National Guard, Border Patrol, and other agencies charging that those agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to protect the endangered Sonoran pronghorn c. The suit also charges that the agencies are failing to lawfully manage public lands on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, all of which support the antelope.

"Military training and protecting our borders are very important jobs," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife. "But they shouldn’t be done at the expense of this critically endangered creature or its wild desert habitat. The two tasks are not mutually exclusive. Defenders has taken action today to make sure wildlife isn’t left out of the equation."

The refuge, range, monument, and assorted Bureau of Land Management lands contain approximately 3 million acres of public land in the heart of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, the most biologically diverse desert in the world and home to fewer than 150 Sonoranpronghorn. The military has conducted training exercises in this pronghorn habitat during the entire 30 years that the antelope has been listed as an endangered species. At the same time, the Border Patrol, without U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), authorization is conducting operations in the region that may harm the antelope and its habitat.

Defenders maintains that the military’s bombing, strafing, low- level flight maneuvers, and various other training activities have contributed to a decline in the pronghorn population. Defenders contends that the Department of Defense (DOD) is operating under "take" authorizations that are illegal under the ESA, allowing the military to kill and harass individual endangered pronghorn. In addition, DOD has failed to take the steps required by law to conserve, protect, and recover the Sonoran pronghorn throughout its range, such as considering the cumulative impacts of the many DOD activities that occur in this area.

The Border Patrol’s operations include low level helicopter overflights -- less than 200 feet -- over pronghorn territory and the creation and regular maintenance of environmentally damaging roads. Studies have shown that overflights trigger a flight response in antelope that can separate fawns from their mothers. In such a harsh desert environment this separation is likely to lead to the death of the fawn. In 1996 and 1997, no fawns survived to adulthood. Only a handful survived in 1998. None of the agencies have addressed the impact that these and other harmful actions have on the continued survival of the Sonoran pronghorn as their numbers continue to spiral downward.

"The DOD has always and will always put military training first and protection of public lands second," said Bill Snape, Legal Director for Defenders. "In situations in which the military perceives a conflict between environmental protection and military training, the military training will prevail. We need enforceable conservation standards for the pronghorn, especially if DOD takes over management of the Goldwater Range, as proposed by the Clinton Administration."

Previously, Defenders had sued the Air Force to compel it to monitor bombing ranges for pronghorn before initiating training maneuvers. The controversy over range- management issues continues as Congress seeks to reauthorize military use of the Goldwater Range. The Clinton Administration has sent to Congress a plan that gives DOD primary management jurisdiction over the range and other public lands, instead of giving jurisdiction to a traditional land-management agency such as the Interior Department.

The proposed change in management comes at a crucial time for the pronghorn which experts fear could go extinct in the next 50 years. Not only is the military violating the ESA and NEPA regarding the pronghorn, but recently the Air Force accidentally dropped a 500-pound bomb on one of the more pristine areas of the range, damaging habitat so rich in biological diversity that it was proposed for designation as a national conservation area by the Bureau of Land Management. This unfortunate accident highlights Defenders’ concerns over whether the Administration should entrust the military with management of these sensitive lands. Absent any assessment of the cumulative impacts of military and other agency action on the range, and a concrete plan to deal with them, neither the Clinton Administration nor Congress are likely to show concrete evidence that DOD management will improve the pronghorn’s chances of recovery.

"The hot summer drought in the area is increasing the chances that no fawns will survive again this year," said Snape. "This species simply cannot survive these attacks from all directions. Until the Fish and Wildlife Service gets all the federal agencies to the table and protects the natural resources of the Sonoran Desert, it should require the action agencies to cease activities around the pronghorn. Defenders is seeking only basic compliance with environmental safeguards set up by the federal government."

Defenders of Wildlife is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and supporters nationwide, more than 6,000 of whom live in Arizona. Defenders has retained Howard Crystal and Katherine Meyer of the law firm of Meyer & Glitzenstein to represent it in this case.

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Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270

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Sonoran Pronghorn,  © Mark Milburn
In the Magazine
With an oblong face and a black nose splotch, the Sonoran pronghorn stands out against the cacti-strewn landscape of the American Southwest.