Wildlife biologist Aimee Byard took it as a hopeful sign when she spotted 11 bighorn lambs, including a rare set of twins, nibbling encelia and ambrosia high above the multimillion-dollar homes of Rancho Mirage this spring. But as fall approaches, biologists such as Byard are growing concerned that the peninsular bighorn sheep, an endangered species, soon may lose some of the protection that has helped them survive.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on the final details of a map that would cut by nearly half the habitat the agency had previously considered to be critical to the species' survival. The plan could be approved by the end of September.
Scientists and environmental advocates say the trimmed habitat could deal a permanent setback to a species that has shown signs of recovering after 10 years of federal protection. They accuse the Department of the Interior, which governs Fish and Wildlife, of mixing politics with science, and caving to mining and tribal interests in the desert. One mining operation in Imperial County already has applied to expand its operation into land once listed as critical to the sheep's recovery, documents show.
"The recovery plan . . . has been working," said Mark Jorgensen, supervisor of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, who has worked with peninsular bighorn sheep for 40 years. "Why take out 500,000 acres of it and say that it's not a big deal? And that it's based on science? Why not come out and say that it's just politics?"
Jane Hedron, a spokeswoman for the wildlife service, defended the new boundaries as sufficient to help the species recover.
"Critical habitat is habitat considered essential for the recovery of the endangered species," she said. "It is not intended to include the entire range of a species."
She said the decision to trim the habitat map was in "the realm of policy, not politics." The secretary of the Interior, she added, has the legal discretion to exclude critical habitat.
"If there is a really pronounced economic impact, the secretary can exclude essential habitat," she said.
The peninsular bighorn once ranged from Mexico to the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs. By 1998, however, development had drastically reduced that range and isolated some populations. As a result, the population had dropped by nearly 75% from 1974. By then, fewer than 300 sheep remained. Federal officials declared the species endangered in 1998, and three years later, biologists drew a map of the territory they believed would be needed to help the species recover.
Not everyone agreed with the biologists. In March 2005, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians filed a lawsuit against the federal government, saying that federal officials had ignored economic effects and used flawed methods to map critical habitat in 2001. They soon were joined by building organizations, mining interests and a small group of Palm Springs equestrians.
"We participated in that bighorn sheep recovery plan. We asked them not to designate tribal land as critical habitat," said Tom Davis, chief planning and development officer for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which owns 31,500 acres within the habitat boundaries.
"We were ignored by the committee, so we sued," Davis said.
When the Interior Department settled with the tribe in 2006, it invalidated the 2001 critical habitat and gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service two years to gather data and redraw it.
Advocates for the bighorn were shocked when the Fish and Wildlife Service finished its study and issued a map that cut the critical habitat by nearly half and left two populations isolated.
"I'm not happy with it. We had contiguous habitat . . . now there are three islands," said Esther Rubin, a member of the original Peninsular Bighorn Recovery Team.
Jim De Forge of the Bighorn Institute in Palm Desert said he worries that the development pressing into the former habitat will reverse the gains made by the group's captive-breeding program and other efforts to increase the bighorn population.
Bighorn sheep are easily disturbed by human activities, and are particularly susceptible to communicable diseases carried by pets and livestock. In the 1980s, De Forge said, 90% of lambs were dying from disease. From 1998 to 2001, 43% of lambs died from "urbanization," which includes automobile collisions, poisoning from ornamental plants, predation from increased coyote populations and illnesses caused by parasites that are common to residential development.
One population, known as the San Jacinto group, has only 13 ewes and is threatened by a proposed housing development called Shadowrock at the base of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Meanwhile, U.S. Gypsum Co. is applying for permits to expand its Imperial County operations into former critical habitat, according to the Bureau of Land Management. A final environmental impact report for the project was released in March. It included measures to restrict access to undisturbed land and to educate mine employees about avoiding sheep, and pledges to keep domestic animals and livestock away from bighorn areas.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has extended the comment period on the plan to Oct. 24, 2008. Public hearings have been scheduled for Sept. 10 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Living Desert, 47-900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert.
Urban pressure: Sheep are being squeezed in their range. Page B2