Defenders Sues the Interior Department to Protect the Endangered Sonoran Pronghorn

Printer-friendly version

Filing Coincides with Congressional hearing on military use of the Goldwater Range in Arizona

(04/13/1999) - Washington, D.C. -- Defenders of Wildlife will file suit today in Federal District Court alleging that several federal agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to protect the highly endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope in southern Arizona.

The legal complaint targets the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the agency charged with implementing the ESA, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that manages the land in much of the pronghorn's remaining habitat, including the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona. Both agencies have repeatedly failed to take the steps necessary to conserve and protect the Sonoran pronghorn and to establish or implement adequate recovery programs for the species. The Department of Defense, which jointly manages the range, is not named in the lawsuit.

This suit comes at a crucial time for the pronghorn. As early as this summer, Congress will consider renewal of the military withdrawal from the Barry M. Goldwater Range. This action could afford some protection for the pronghorn's habitat from the fragmentation and urbanization problems increasingly found throughout the Southwest, but only if done correctly.

"Unfortunately, BLM's management of the habitat on the range has been woefully inadequate, and its enforcement of the existing use restrictions has been non-existent," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife. "Basically, the land management of the range is in chaos, and it has had a direct effect on the pronghorn and many other species of wildlife. The renewal of the range is an optimal time for Congress and the Administration to craft a solution."

The Barry Goldwater Range, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument are home to the few remaining endangered desert pronghorn and offer the species the last of its spectacular desert wilderness habitat. Although the desert pronghorn population has been listed as endangered for more than 30 years, the Arizona population has dropped to an estimated 140 individuals with no signs of stable growth, leading scientists to believe that extinction is a real possibility.

The Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in the world, yet because of federal mismanagement and lack of funding it is in danger. One threat is use of a portion of the desert for military training. However, a number of esteemed conservationists have suggested the creation of a united land-management scheme in which military training would still be able to occur.

The BLM repeatedly violates federal law on the Goldwater Range and adjacent lands. Defenders has filed two administrative appeals and a protest against the agency. Decisions on these are pending. Additionally, Defenders recently filed a request with the U.S. Attorney in Arizona for prosecution of violations of the Unlawful Enclosures Act on BLM land. Although BLM manages more than 1.8 million acres of the Sonoran Desert and the majority of pronghorn habitat, the agency lacks a pronghorn recovery program which is required by the ESA. In addition, BLM fences limit pronghorn movements and are in direct violation of the agency's own fencing standards. Further, BLM planning documents fail to meet required Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) standards, and the agency has never completed a full environmental assessment of the impacts of cattle that grazing on the limited desert forage in pronghorn habitat.

In addition, FWS also has failed to take the necessary steps to conserve, protect, and recover the Sonoran pronghorn throughout its range, including the consideration of cumulative impacts on the species of the many activities that occur in this area. Instead, FWS continues to issue "take" authorizations that allow various agencies active in pronghorn range directly to kill and harass individual pronghorn. Defenders' concern is that no science-based justification exists for continuing to grant these authorizations and contends that FWS take-statements are illegal.

"The FWS does not have a handle on pronghorn recovery because it has not systematically analyzed the cumulative impacts of all agency activities on the species," says Bill Snape, Legal Director for Defenders of Wildlife. "Now is the time for the FWS to step up to the plate."

Ironically, even the National Park Service (NPS), one of the defendants in the case, has urged FWS to initiate consultation with multiple agencies in order to avoid just this sort of problem. While FWS ignored the NPS request, multi-agency consultation is being used in other regions to address other endangered species across the country. Defenders contends that the pronghorn's dire situation deserves similar consideration.

"We don't understand why Region 2 of the FWS refuses to make the pronghorn an institutional priority, " says Chandra Rosenthal, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. "Programmatic, ecosystem-based, multi-agency consultation is one of the primary aims of this lawsuit. We believe that this type of consultation will ensure that all impacts are assessed cumulatively and will result in realistic protection measures for the Sonoran pronghorn and its desert habitat."

As part of Defenders' Sonoran ecoregional conservation program, the organization has taken steps to protect other species of concern in the Sonoran desert, including the flat-tail horned lizard and the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl. Defenders has retained Howard Crystal and Katherine Meyer of the law firm of Meyers & Glitzenstein to represent them in this case.

Copies of the complaint, the request for BLM prosecution, information on the Barry M. Goldwater Range Renewal, and pictures of the elusive pronghorn are available upon request.

###

Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270