Defenders to Sue 12 Federal Agencies for Failing to Protect Endangered Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope

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(11/05/1998) - WASHINGTON, D.C. - Defenders of Wildlife will serve notice tomorrow that it will sue 12 federal agencies and departments for multiple violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in failing to protect the highly endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope in southwestern Arizona. In conjunction with a scientific report Defenders is releasing today, the suit will specifically target the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the agency in charge of implementing the ESA, for failing to take necessary steps to conserve and protect Sonoran pronghorn throughout their range, including the failure to consider the cumulative impacts of these agencies' activities on the species. "As few as 120 of the Sonoran pronghorn remain in Arizona, and our report warns that if the population drops below 100 overall, extinction is imminent," says Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen. "The Sonoran pronghorn antelope is the fastest land mammal in the Americas, but it is running out of time. We must act now if we are to save the species." In addition to the FWS, the other federal entities which are causing the decline of the desert pronghorn antelope are the Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Army National Guard, Marine Corps, Air Force, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, and the Department of Defense. "A long period of frustration has driven Defenders to take this legal action," says Defenders' Legal Director Bill Snape. "For five years we have dealt with the federal government to promote science-based ecosystem management in the Sonoran Desert and recover the pronghorn, and we have not seen adequate progress."

"The decline of the Sonoran pronghorn is an important indicator of a natural ecosystem in stress. Failure to manage this ecosystem adequately is particularly disturbing because most of the land in the Sonoran Desert is public land. But with more coordination and courage, the Department of the Interior can recover the Sonoran pronghorn and the ecosystem, as the law says it must," Snape adds.

The November 6 letter will give the agencies the requisite 60-day notice of the impending lawsuit. Defenders has retained the Washington law firm of Meyer and Glitzenstein to represent them.

Only two small groups of the Sonoran pronghorn species (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis) remain, one in southern Arizona and the other in Sonora, Mexico. Although the Sonoran pronghorn has been listed as endangered for more than 30 years, according to FWS records the Arizona population has dropped to an estimated 120 to 180 individuals, and shows no signs of stable growth. Scientists now believe that extinction is a very real possibility.

The current U.S. distribution of the subspecies is greatly reduced from its historic distribution, now located primarily in the Barry M. Goldwater Range, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, with additional sightings on BLM public lands. FWS attributes this decline to an increasingly inhospitable environment and a lack of adequate home range.

In Defenders' notice letter, the group reports that military training activities -- such as air and ground maneuvers, bombing, strafing, artillery fire, and low-level overflights -- are having adverse effects on the pronghorn. Defenders believes that each agency must consider the cumulative impact of all these factors when analyzing specific activities on pronghorn range.

Defenders has been actively tracking the decline of the pronghorn and attempting to assist in the recovery process. Since 1991, FWS has been developing an updated recovery plan, but it is still not completed. Defenders submitted comments on the plan to FWS in 1994, 1995, and 1997, outlining concerns with the substance and the implementation of the plan. Defenders filed suit against the Air Force in 1996 to stop live-fire action in pronghorn habitat. In 1998, Defenders negotiated with the Marine Corps to develop a mitigation strategy to compensate for low-level flights over pronghorn habitat during fawning season. Defenders has commented on various planning documents for the military, BLM, National Park Service, and FWS national wildlife refuges.

Defenders states that Border Patrol activities may be among the most threatening to the pronghorn because they remain unanalyzed by FWS. Although the Border Patrol claims that it has modified its extremely low-level helicopter flights in consideration of pronghorn movements, the agency refuses to provide documentation. Defenders has filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that remain unanswered and recently also filed an administrative FOIA appeal. "We find the lawlessness and obstruction of the Border Patrol to be particularly troubling," says Snape, "and we are prepared to file suit against the agency for the release of the public information."

Defenders has concurrently filed affidavits with the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, seeking removal from pronghorn habitat of illegal fences authorized by the BLM. The fencing at issue entangles pronghorn and is a direct threat to their ability to obtain adequate forage. "BLM has acknowledged that the type of fence on the BLM land around Ajo is jeopardizing the pronghorn, yet the agency has refused to take action," says Chandra Rosenthal, Defenders' Associate Counsel. "Removal of the fences is critical to the pronghorn's health and safety,"

Today Defenders is releasing results of a population-viability analysis, a scientific study that analyzes the statistical likelihood of the population's survival. Defenders says the study demonstrates the need for the lawsuit, revealing that the federal agencies responsible for managing this population must take radical steps to recover the subspecies or it could become extinct within our lifetime.

The study indicates that the Sonoran pronghorn has a 23 percent probability of extinction within 100 years. If the population falls below 100 individuals, the probability of extinction increases markedly. "All of the science points to the critical state of the pronghorn and the urgent need for the Fish and Wildlife Service to control the adverse impacts on fawning," says Dennis Hosack, the report's lead author and former science director at Defenders of Wildlife who is now a wildlife biologist with the National Resource Conservation Service in North Carolina.

Even Congress is entering the fray over the future of the pronghorn on at least two fronts. First, following a Congressional directive, the Air Force recently released a draft legislative environmental impact statement to authorize renewal of Department of Defense use of the Barry M. Goldwater range and on airspace over adjoining public and private lands. Second, under a new law governing FWS management of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the programmatic environmental assessment draft plan for future management of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is open for public comment until November 15. "These two documents have vital implications for the pronghorn and the Sonoran Desert, and the FWS must demonstrate leadership in protecting both," Snape says.

As part of Defenders' ecosystem protection program, the organization has taken steps to protect other species of concern in the Sonoran Desert, including legal challenges to compel listing of the flat-tail horned lizard as an endangered species and measures to stem the loss of cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl habitat. Additionally, Defenders is engaged in ongoing administrative challenges to grazing permits on BLM lands in the Sonoran Desert.

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Contact(s):

Chandra Rosenthal, 202-682-9400 (Legal)
Roni Liberman, 202-682-9400 (Media)