Archive | Southwest


The Case of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard: A Candidate Species Denied

On June 12, 2012, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided that the dunes sagebrush lizard, a candidate species for over a decade, no longer warranted listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Yet only 18 months earlier, it concluded that the species warranted listing as “endangered.”  This abrupt reversal was based largely on two candidate conservation agreements for the species, one for New Mexico and another for Texas.

Photo courtesy of  -  N.M. Game and Fish Dep't

Photo courtesy of – N.M. Game and Fish Dep’t

In a report released yesterday, we describe for the first time serious problems with the Service relying on the Texas agreement to support its decision.  Some of these problems include the following:

  • The Service is unable to determine what conservation measures participants will actually implement under the Texas agreement. This is the result of several compounding factors, including the vagueness of the agreement and the Service never having reviewed or approved any of the certificates of inclusion that describe what conservation measures participants committed to implementing (the New Mexico agreement, fortunately, does not have any of these problems).
  • The confidentiality provisions of Texas law, as currently interpreted by the Texas Comptroller’s Office and the Texas Office of the Attorney General, will prevent the Service from reviewing any part of the original certificates of inclusion, unless participants voluntarily disclose their certificate (which only one participant has done).
  • The Service’s decision relies largely on the claim that the Texas agreement limits habitat loss to only one percent within the first three years of implementing the agreement.  We discovered that this limit cannot be ensured because the Service has not enrolled enough habitat (99 percent) under the Texas agreement. In fact, the Service was about 76,550 acres short of this goal as of May 2012.

We also recommend eight specific improvements to ESA policy to address these and other problems, so that they are not repeated in future listing decisions for candidate species.  Some of these improvements can be implemented before the Service ever decides whether to list a candidate species.  For example, the Service should create policy clarifying that the conservation goals for candidate species are identical to those for recovering listed species.  Other improvements can be implemented as part of the listing decision.  For example, the Service should more clearly explain why a candidate species no longer warrants listing based on both its biological status and the threats it faces.  With listing decisions for high-profile species like the lesser prairie chicken and greater sage grouse around the corner, these recommendations are very timely.

Dunes sagebrush lizard

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 Comments

Mining threatens important habitat on the Coronado National Forest

Mining threatens important habitat on the Coronado National Forest

Ocelot (photo: USFWS)

(Written with help from Matt Clark and Heather Murray.)

Defenders of Wildlife, along with a diverse set of partner groups, submitted comments this week on the Rosemont Mine proposal on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  The proposed open pit mine, just southeast of Tucson, would have a direct impact on 4,500 acres of the Santa Rita Mountain range, as well as impacts that would radiate far beyond the project’s footprint.

The Coronado NF provides vital recovery habitat for rare cats including the elusive jaguar and ocelot.  Last year a jaguar was spotted in the region for the first time in three years. In fact, this male jaguar was sighted roaming in a mountain range directly adjacent to the Santa Ritas, where Rosemont wants to dig its mine.  This come back story for jaguars can only carry on if intact, connected, suitable jaguar habitat is prioritized and protected in the region.  Projects of this size and scale on what is currently undisturbed suitable jaguar habitat give us great pause.

As the project proposal has been developed, some important species surveys needed to determine what wildlife would be impacted have not been completed.  Information related to biological resources has not been made available to the public, and impact analysis of key biological and hydrologic resources in the Rosemont area are lacking.  Similarly, analyses of the project’s potential contribution to climate change are completely inadequate.

As the comment letter states:  “The biological and ecological resources of the Rosemont area are unique and of both national and international significance. Hundreds of rare and regionally endemic species occur in the project area.  Neither the Proposed Action nor the Preferred Alternative . . . identify mitigation that is adequate to protect the Rosemont area’s biological resources.”

Groups highlighted a host of other concerns in the letter, from water quality impacts and water volume use to increased traffic and air pollution.  One key request from all groups is for the Forest Service to do its due diligence and provide a supplemental environmental review that fully analyzes the potential threats and impacts.  We will continue to push for additional information to be gathered and reviewed.

Similar issues have come up in other mining projects on the Coronado NF – major environmental impacts with insufficient review.  In fact, Defenders recently challenged an exploratory mining project in the region that was approved without NEPA review.

Last month, Defenders filed suit against the Forest Service in response to its approval of the Hardshell Minerals Exploration Project – located in the Patagonia Mountains approximately five miles south of the town of Patagonia, AZ – which would allow for the drilling of fifteen exploratory holes in an area known for its pristine natural landscapes and rich biological diversity.  The project as approved would involve around-the-clock drilling seven days a week, increase traffic to and from the area, and create significant noise and light impacts, among others.  Perhaps most alarming is that this mining company started a wildfire that burned almost 400 acres of the Coronado NF while conducting similar activities on their private in-holding adjacent to the proposed project area last May.

Despite the potential effects of this project on threatened and endangered species in the area – including the jaguar, ocelot, Mexican spotted owl, and lesser long-nosed bat – the Forest Service approved this project without NEPA environmental review.  Likewise, the Forest Service failed to consider the fact that two other similar exploration projects are currently proposed within just a few miles of the Hardshell project, greatly expanding the overall footprint of exploratory drilling in this area.  Defenders is concerned about the significant and cumulative environmental impacts of exploratory drilling at multiple sites in this Sky Island mountain range and the broader region.

It might not come as a surprise to learn that Rosemont Copper and Wildcat Silver, the two companies pushing for these mines to be permitted, are not only both Canadian-owned companies, but they also share some of the same board members. We are making sure that these companies follow the letter of the law to avoid undue harm to our precious wildlife, water and natural heritage.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field, National Forests, Public Lands, Southwest0 Comments

Ocelots in Arizona

Ocelots in Arizona

An ocelot that was found in Arizona, after being treed by dogs

An ocelot that was treed by dogs in Arizona. Photo from Arizona Game and Fish Department

Ocelots are a rare cat found throughout Latin America and that once occurred all the way north to Arkansas.  For example, Conservation International is focused on conserving ocelots in Ecuador and elsewhere.

More recently, U.S. ocelot populations have only been thought to exist in the very southern tip of Texas.  However, the good news is that there is increasing evidence that an ocelot population also exists in southeastern Arizona.   In 2009, the Sky Island Alliance documented a cat in Cochise County, and on February 9th, 2011 another cat was sighted.  In 2010, a dead ocelot was found on the roadside in Gila County.  This week the Arizona Game and Fish Department reported another documented sighting – from a hunter’s trail camera in the Huachuca Mountains.

The question of whether these ocelot sightings represent a previously undetected breeding population in Arizona or simply sightings of lone male animals dispersing from Mexico is a common question for rare and secretive animals. The absence of data often does not reflect the absence of the species but rather the absence of a valid sampling system to find them.

We believe the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently giving too little attention to the role that suitable Arizona habitat can play in the recovery of an ocelot population in the area (and is focused on Mexico instead).  Arizona habitats may have particular value because there are large areas lacking major roads (a primary cause of ocelot mortality) and large areas of protected public land.  The two additional ocelot sightings in Arizona since the agency published its draft recovery plan give additional weight to the idea that the final recovery plan should better describe a conservation strategy for Arizona ocelots.

Ecotourism focused on ocelot is a feature of Earthwatch Institute’s programs – perhaps someday a healthy U.S. ocelot population will provide new revenues for Arizona landowners too.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 Comments

Sand dune lizard

Pearce to defund lizard and prairie chicken listing

Last month, Representative Pearce of New Mexico sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee asking it to deny funding to list the sand dune lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus) and the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) under the Endangered Species Act.  Both species are candidates for listing and have been assigned a listing priority number of 2 out of 12, meaning that the need for listing is extremely high.  Pearce believes that the Fish & Wildlife Service needs to more thoroughly explore voluntary conservation options, such as candidate conservation agreements, before resorting to listing.  To that end, his request does not restrict funding to implement candidate agreements.  You can read more about Pearce’s letter in Defenders’ press release here.

The proposed funding restriction has several problems, including that it has no official end date.  So with the threat of listing far into the future (and perhaps never to materialize), will oil and gas developers truly be motivated to enter into candidate agreements?  After all, although some landowners enter into agreements primary to conserve candidate species, others primarily seek to reduce the regulatory burdens from an eventual listing.  Unless Pearce specifies a timeframe for lifting the funding restriction, we are unlikely to see enough new candidate agreements to reverse the decline of either the sand dune lizard or the prairie chicken. In fact, since 2004, when the lizard was placed on the candidate list, only six private landowners and four oil companies have enrolled in candidate agreements within the lizard’s range.  The Service believes that “there are hundreds of oil and gas operators in the range of the dunes sagebrush lizard, and participation throughout the majority of the dunes sagebrush lizard habitat would be necessary for the conservation of the species.”

Sand dune lizard

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands, Southwest0 Comments

Photo of an ocelot

Recovering Ocelots, Challenges and Opportunities

Photo of an ocelot

Photo by Tom Smylie. Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Defenders recently submitted comments on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Draft Ocelot Recovery Plan (first revision).  This draft improves considerably on the original recovery plan from 1990, but we identified three main issues in need of further analysis.

The first issue is establishing population goals for recovery.  The plan focuses on recovering ocelots in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S.  It splits ocelots from this region into two management units—one covering Arizona and Sonora, and another covering Texas and Tamaulipas—and then sets population recovery goals for each unit.  The problem is that some of these goals leave the risk of extinction surprisingly high.  For example, to meet the goal of having 200 ocelots in Texas, there can be two populations of 75 ocelots each.  Yet each population faces an 83% risk of extinction after 100 years, according to the population viability assessment (PVA) cited in the recovery plan.  These numeric goals should be higher.

The second issue is climate change.  The recovery plan gives a nod to climate change without analyzing any of its predicted impacts across the Southwest.  This omission is inexcusable, considering that climate models already predict a more arid Southwest.  Knowing that drought is one of the most important factors in ocelot reproductive success, we asked the Service to revise the recovery plan to include more information on climate change effects and responses to them.  One method is to conduct PVA simulations that incorporate the likely effects of climate change on ocelot demographics.  Another method is to consider reintroducing ocelots to other portions of their historic U.S. range, thus decreasing the vulnerability of the species to climate change.

The third issue is managing the U.S.-Mexico border.  The recovery plan is short on specific actions that will be taken to minimize the impacts of physical barriers to ocelot movement along this border, as well as border security activities.  The plan should discuss precisely how ocelots will be recovered in light of these threats.  For example, the Department of Homeland Security will fund $50 million to address impacts of the border wall on endangered species and other natural resources and has already announced the allocation of $6.8 million of this funding to wildlife projects.  The recovery plan should describe precisely how this money will be used to benefit ocelots, given that it is one of the species most endangered by border barrier construction.

Recovery planning for ocelots presents an exceptional opportunity for the Service to show how it can manage some of the most pressing threats facing this and other species.  We hope the Service seizes this opportunity.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.