By JENNIFER BOWLES
A Peninsular bighorn habitat adds more scrutiny of developments.
Mark Zaleski / The Press-Enterprise
Federal wildlife officials are proposing to expand by about 36,000 acres the amount of land they consider essential for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep to survive in the mountains above the Coachella Valley.
Although the land was added to the latest so-called critical habitat proposal issued last October by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, environmentalists complained it is still half the land included in the agency's original 2001 decision.
Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that large gaps remain in the hillsides where the sheep roam, potentially allowing development to cut off migration paths.
"Having the critical habitat provides a stronger set of protection for the species and to ensure that it's not just about the survival of individuals but recovery for the species as a whole," she said.
Critical habitat adds more scrutiny of large developments by federal wildlife officials and can lead to design changes to minimize impacts on an endangered species, but the designation does not ban projects.
Jane Hendron, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman, said critical habitat doesn't necessarily include a species' entire range. She said the agency refined its mapping technique and excluded areas that already are developed when it reduced by half the 2001 habitat last year to some 420,487 acres.
"We did our best in 2001 but we've come along ways in terms of mapping and how we refined our criteria for what is considered essential habitat," she said.
Peninsular bighorn sheep were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1998 because of urban encroachment and disease that left the population at 290. According to 2007 documents from the wildlife agency, estimates showed the population to be 793 from the Palm Springs area to the Mexican border.
Hendron said the latest addition of 36,240 acres to the critical habitat proposal includes more alluvial fans, the sandy areas that spread at the bottom of canyons, where sheep forage and drink water. Also, she said, officials looked at old records to include land where bighorn sheep were observed 20 years ago rather than just 10 years. The added critical habitat includes sections of the eastern edge of the Santa Rosa Mountains.
Belenky said saving the habitat for the sheep helps preserve the reason many people live in the Coachella Valley with the scenic mountains as a backdrop.
"There are huge development pressures but also why people move there is for the beauty of the natural landscape," she said. "If we can't keep areas that allow the bighorn sheep alive, what are we going to have but barren hillsides?"
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has scheduled two meetings Sept. 10 to take public comment on the Peninsular bighorn sheep decision.
When: 1 to 3 p.m.; 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: The Living Desert
Address: 47-900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert
More information: www.fws.gov/Carlsbad or 760-431-9440