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Press Release
For Immediate Release Monday, December 16, 2002
Contact:  Scott Royder, TX PEER, 512.441.6881
Nicole J. Rosmarino, Forest Guardians, 719.523.4123

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fail to make 90-day finding on petition

SANTA FE, NM—Dec. 16. Forest Guardians, the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, and Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sent a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) today given the Service’s failure to make a 90-day finding on the groups’ petition to designate critical habitat for the Northern Aplomado Falcon. The groups filed the petition in early September of this year, but the Service has not yet published a determination on the merits of that petition in the Federal Register as the ESA requires.  

The groups argued in their petition that the original basis for excluding critical habitat—that no birds existed in the United States—is indefensible, in light of the fact that it is no longer accurate. Over the last decade the aplomado has begun to naturally recolonize historic Chihuahuan desert grasslands habitat in the Southwest, especially in New Mexico, culminating most recently in the first successful nesting effort in 50 years.  

While reintroductions of the falcon are underway in south and west Texas, the groups are alarmed by the removal of habitat protections that have been a central part of those reintroduction efforts. Negotiations are currently underway for reintroducing falcons into New Mexico despite an already existing population in the state. The potential for habitat protections for the falcon to be eroded in the state has spurred the groups’ petition for formal critical habitat designation. 

According to the petition, protection of habitat is urgently needed for full falcon recovery. Significant threats to the aplomado’s habitat include oil and gas development and livestock grazing on extensive tracks of public lands. Additional threats are pesticide contamination, which causes eggshell thinning and failed reproduction; and drastic declines in falcon prey species such as grassland birds.  

“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s foot-dragging on our critical habitat petition is irresponsible, as serious habitat degradation continues to prevent the recovery of aplomados in the Southwest. With the escalating threat of large-scale oil and gas development, and the continued destruction of desert grasslands by livestock, habitat protection for the aplomado falcon is vital,” said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Endangered Species Coordinator for Forest Guardians. 

Oil and gas exploration and development is cited in the petition as a significant threat to falcon habitat. Existing wells and roads have caused extensive habitat fragmentation and potentially massive development on Otero Mesa, an area targeted for development under the Bush Energy plan, will increase this threat to falcon habitat. Biologists have documented the importance of Otero Mesa to falcons and the petitioners emphasize that planned exploration and drilling on the Mesa will greatly reduce the usability of this key natural area to falcons. 

The petitioners also point out that over a century of livestock grazing has transformed much of the falcon’s habitat from high quality black grama grassland to scrubland, thereby degrading its suitability for falcons. Livestock also damage soaptree yucca and may limit the ability of this old-growth desert plant (growing upwards at a glacial 1” a year) to reach sufficient heights to provide falcon nests. Biologists have suggested that a yucca plant of sufficient height for a falcon nest would take a century to replace. Overall, the decline of grasslands is a significant trend in the Chihuahuan Desert, and the petition underscores that protecting falcon habitat would help safeguard whole ecosystems in this region. 

Forest Guardians seeks to preserve and restore native wildlands and wildlife in the American Southwest through fundamental reform of public policies and practices. The Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance works to encourage the understanding, appreciation and protection of all the elements of the Chihuahuan Desert. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is a national non-profit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values and protecting public employees who protect our environment.  

Call 719-523-4123 or email nrosmari@fguardians.org for a copy of the notice of intent to sue. The critical habitat petition and the petition’s executive summary; fact sheets on oil and gas development, livestock grazing, the link between falcons and yucca, falcon prey species and other biological information on the aplomado; and maps of potential habitat and impending oil and gas development, historical falcon sightings, and potential falcon habitat are all available at http://www.fguardians.org/.


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