Friday, January 29, 2010

Forest officials modify plan for bighorn sheep

The Payette National Forest has released a set of proposed updates to its plan to keep domestic sheep from intermingling with wild bighorns, a species susceptible to pneumonia that can be passed along by their domestic cousins.

Forest officials are taking public comment on the 184-page document that spells out five new alternatives to keep the herds segregated. It also includes the latest scientific analysis on the health risks wild bighorns face in sharing habitat with domestics.

Forest managers have been working to update the plan since 2005 when the chief of the U.S. Forest Service declared that the previous plan failed to adequately protect wild sheep in north-central Idaho.

The draft, citing field observations and scientific research, finds bighorn sheep have a high probability of contracting fatal pneumonia after contact with domestic sheep.

One alternative in the draft plan calls for reducing domestic grazing by about 60 percent in Hells Canyon and allotments in the Salmon River Canyon.

"We want to keep the contact rate as low as possible, 2 to 5 percent is where you would prefer that number to be," Patty Soucek, a planner for the forest, told the Lewiston Tribune. "The higher the contact rate, the less likely the (bighorn) population is going to persist."

The draft's alternatives also include extremes for grazing, from an all-out ban on domestic grazing to no reductions.

Suzanne Rainville, supervisor of the Payette National Forest, said the new document also focused on plugging in information from about 15 years of data gleaned from bighorn sheep fitted with radio collars.

"Instead of trying to assume what bighorns will do, we said we have all this information, let's use that to tell us what they have done and make as few assumptions as possible," she said.

Environmental groups, the Nez Perce Tribe and bighorn advocates said any new policy approve by the Payette National Forest could have broader implications in other western states where bighorns may have contact with domestic sheep.

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Hailey-based Western Watershed Projects, said the decision made on the Payette forest could have far-reaching implications for management of domestic sheep across the West.

"And that will be, I think, a very good thing because there are so many places where we have this kind of conflict," he said.

Idaho bighorn numbers have dwindled by half since 1990, to about 3,500 animals. Many wildlife scientists are convinced contact between domestic sheep and bighorns reintroduced into the region in the 1970s is behind deadly disease outbreaks. Disease transmission concerns figured prominently in an Oct. 14 federal court ruling that banished a rancher from his family's historic grazing ground along the Salmon River.

The forest is taking public comment through March 19 before issuing a final decision later this year.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Critical Habitat Is Now Prudent for Jaguars?

By Judy Keeler and Sue Krentz

The recent ruling from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declaring critical habitat for jaguars in the U.S. is now prudent reverses every “finding” the Service has issued up until this time. In our opinion, it is one of the most ignorant, egregious and politically motivated decisions they’ve ever made.

We’ve served on the Jaguar Conservation Team since its inception in March of 1997. Through those years the Team has gathered the historical sightings records of jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico, consulted with wildlife biologists that are experts in jaguar behavior and habitat suitability, developed a jaguar conservation strategy based on this information, and an educational plan that promotes critical thinking skills in students.

The Service would benefit by using some of these critical thinking skills. In our opinion, their “finding” is not supported by the best available science, but based upon their fear of the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuits, pseudo-science and for political expediency.

Although the Service claims to have reached their decision using the best available science, it’s obvious, to us, they didn’t.

If they intend to use the best available science to prepare their proposed rulemaking for jaguars they would not include some of the literature cited in their federal register notice as the “best available science”; i.e., Robinson 2006 and Sierra Institute 2000.

These reports were not taken seriously by most of the members of the Jaguar Conservation Team. In fact, the Sierra Institute’s report and recommendations to develop a captive breeding program and reintroduction plan for jaguars were challenged by the Jaguar Scientific Advisory Group. Yet, these reports are included in the Service’s notice.

The federal register notice also states that the Service will continue to subject “proposed” critical habitat in the U.S. to conservation actions under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, even though there is no science to support their assumption that jaguars currently occupy any area in the borderlands. What has been proven is there are corridors the recently sighted jaguars have used to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

These “corridors” should not be confused with historical jaguar reports and land-use suitability characteristics. Anyone that has lived in the borderland areas for any length of time is only too aware of drying trends over the last 500 years. It is well documented that jaguars are the only cats in the world that enjoy water. Where are they going to find it in the Borderlands?

The wildlife biologists that served on the jaguar advisory group believed "for at least the last century the jaguar has been a regular, albeit infrequent, visitor to a small area of the borderlands region.” They also surmised that "if there had been a resident breeding population of jaguars in the U.S. in the recent past, it was probably a very small population, short-lived, and not viable.”

So where’s this science in the federal register notice?

The Jaguar Conservation Team always tended to agree that Mexico and the countries in Central and South America were sovereign and we had no right to impose our jaguar conservation strategies on them. Not the Service. They will be using their “authority” to work with other agencies to conserve and recover jaguars in these nations.

Mexico will probably hate our arrogance but love the money we’ll be sending them to “conserve” jaguars in their country.

It saddens us that our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has sold out their integrity to comply with a federal judge’s order and the threat of more lawsuits when the Center doesn’t get its way.

Mark our words; this decision is just another step towards more lawsuits. If the Service does not comply with the Center’s every request, they will sue again, and again and again.

In an effort to be transparent, let’s lay all our cards on the table. The agenda behind the lawsuits, protests and media coverage is a plan called the Wildlands Project, or Wildlands Network as it is now named. These lawsuits are not meant to protect jaguars, wolves, polar bears, bats or any other “endangered” species. The animals are just the surrogates to implement the “plan”.

The Endangered Species Act is their tool and the citizen’s lawsuit provision is the means by which these radical organizations continue to hammer the economies of the small, rural communities that must live under their “Rewilding” scheme.

Sue Krentz and her husband Rob ranch in the Chiricahua Mountains of Southeast Arizona. The family has ranched in Arizona for over 100 years.

Judy Keeler and her husband Murray ranch in the Peloncillo Mountains in Southwest New Mexico. The family has ranched in New Mexico for over 100 years.

Both ladies are dedicated members of the Jaguar Conservation Team.

For additional information call:
Judy Keeler: 575-548-2520

Jaguars Don’t Live Here Anymore


EARLIER this month, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would designate “critical habitat” for the endangered jaguar in the United States and take the first steps toward mandating a jaguar recovery plan. This is a policy reversal and, on the surface, it may appear to be a victory for the conservation community and for jaguars, the largest wild cats in the Western Hemisphere.

But as someone who has studied jaguars for nearly three decades, I can tell you it is nothing less than a slap in the face to good science. What’s more, by changing the rules for animal preservation, it stands to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

The debate on what to do about jaguars started in 1997, when, at the urging of many biologists (including me), the Fish and Wildlife Service put the jaguar on the United States endangered species list, because there had been occasional sightings of the cats crossing north over the United States-Mexico border. At the same time, however, the agency ruled that it would not be “prudent” to declare that the jaguar has critical habitat — a geographic area containing features the species needs to survive — in the United States. Determining an endangered species’ critical habitat is a first step toward developing a plan for helping that species recover.

The 1997 decision not to determine critical habitat for the jaguar was the right one, because even though they cross the border from time to time, jaguars don’t occupy any territory in our country — and that probably means the environment here is no longer ideal for them.

In prehistoric times, these beautiful cats inhabited significant areas of the western United States, but in the past 100 years, there have been few, if any, resident breeding populations here. The last time a female jaguar with a cub was sighted in this country was in the early 1900s. (Jaguars — the world’s third-largest wild cats, weighing up to 250 pounds, with distinctive black rosettes on their fur — are a separate species from the smaller, tawny mountain lions, which still roam large areas of the American West.)

Two well-intentioned conservation advocacy groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to change its ruling. Thus in 2006, the agency reassessed the situation and again determined that no areas in the United States met the definition of critical habitat for the jaguar. Despite occasional sightings, mostly within 40 miles of the Mexican border, there were still no data to indicate jaguars had taken up residence inside the United States.

After this second ruling was made, an Arizona rancher, with support from the state Game and Fish Department, set infrared-camera traps to gather more data, and essentially confirmed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s findings. The cameras did capture transient jaguars, including one male jaguar, nicknamed Macho B, who roamed the Arizona borderlands for more than a decade. But Macho B, now dead, might have been the sole resident American jaguar, and his extensive travels indicated he was not having an easy time surviving in this dry, rugged region.

Despite the continued evidence, the two conservation advocacy groups continued to sue the government. Apparently, they want jaguars to repopulate the United States even if jaguars don’t want to. Last March, a federal district judge in Arizona ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit its 2006 determination on critical habitat.

The facts haven’t changed: there is still no area in the United States essential to the conservation of the jaguar. But, having asserted this twice already, the service, now under a new president, has bent to the tiresome litigation. On Jan. 12, Fish and Wildlife officials claimed to have evaluated new scientific information that had become available after the July 2006 ruling. Lo and behold, they determined that it is now prudent to designate critical habitat for the jaguar in the United States.

This means that Fish and Wildlife must now also formulate a recovery plan for the jaguar. And since jaguars have not been able to reestablish themselves naturally over the past century, the government will likely have to go to significant expense to attempt to bring them back — especially if the cats have to be reintroduced.

So why not do everything we can, at whatever cost, to bring jaguars back into the United States? To begin with, the American Southwest is, at best, marginal habitat for the animals. More important, there are better ways to help jaguars. South of our border, from Mexico to Argentina, thousands of jaguars live and breed in their true critical habitat. Governments and conservation groups (including the one I head) are already working hard to conserve jaguar populations and connect them to one another through an initiative called the Jaguar Corridor.

The jaguars that now and then cross into the United States most likely come from the northernmost population of jaguars, in Sonora, Mexico. Rather than demand jaguars return to our country, we should help Mexico and other jaguar-range countries conserve the animals’ true habitat.

The recent move by the Fish and Wildlife Service means that the sparse federal funds devoted to protecting wild animals will be wasted on efforts that cannot help save jaguars. It also stands to weaken the Endangered Species Act, because if critical habitat is redefined as any place where a species might ever have existed, and where you or I might want it to exist again, then the door is open for many other senseless efforts to bring back long-lost creatures.

The Fish and Wildlife officials whose job it is to protect the country’s wild animals need to grow a stronger backbone — stick with their original, correct decision and save their money for more useful preservation work. Otherwise, when funds are needed to preserve all those small, ugly, non-charismatic endangered species at the back of the line, there may be no money left.

Alan Rabinowitz, the president and chief executive of Panthera, a wild cat conservation group, is the author of “Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Depredation reform a priority for NM environmental groups

Reforming a state law that allows landowners to kill wild game that cause property damage will be a priority issue for environmental groups at the state Legislature this year.

The Environmental Alliance of New Mexico announced its priorities this week at a briefing with reporters.

Depredation refers to the damage or loss caused by wildlife to private property, most notably when predators kill livestock or when grazing animals eat plants that have economic benefit to landowners. How to prevent or mitigate such damage has been an ongoing source of tension between ranchers, hunters, environmentalists, and farmers.

In 1997, the “Jennings amendment,” named for Sen. Tim Jennings, allowed property owners to kill wildlife if necessary to protect their property. Such killings have been a long simmering issue, but feelings boiled over in 2008 when a farmer near Cimarron killed at least 39 antelope that had been foraging on his winter wheat crop. Images of slaughtered antelope littering the property showed up on the evening news, igniting a vigorous public debate.

Because the state doesn’t own free roaming wildlife and people have the right to protect their property, how to mitigate wildlife damage to property without allowing landowners to kill the animals is a “contentious and difficult to resolve issue,” R.J. Kirkpatrick, Wildlife Management Division Chief with the Department of Game and Fish, said.

But while he expects it to continue being a controversial issue, wholesale killing of non-predatory animals isn’t an “ethical thing to do,” Kirkpatrick said. A bill that seeks a middle ground on the contentious issue will be sponsored this year by State Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

The 2010 legislation will separate animals into two categories: predators and grazers. Property owners would still be allowed to kill predators if they felt the animals were a threat to property, he said. But with foraging animals, property owners would have one of two options. The state will either purchase fencing for the property to cover the cost of keeping the animals out, or the state would help improve the property in such a way that wildlife could continue being on the property with minimal damage. This option would include purchasing seed for the animals to eat and improving water delivery systems.

When asked how the legislation is viewed by those in support of the current depredation law, Kirkpatrick said organizations like the Cattle Growers Association “weren’t high on the idea.” The main sticking point, he said, is that there continues to be no mechanism through which the state provides financial compensation for crops lost to foraging animals.

In addition to the depredation bill, the EANM will proactively support legislation by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Grants, to mandate energy efficient building codes for public structures. The legislation would mandate that buildings are designed to use half or less than half of the energy a conventional building of that type would use.

The EANM is composed of groups like Amigos Bravos, Conservation Voters New Mexico, the Sierra Club, and the NM Wildlife Federation. In addition to the proactive legislation they’re supporting this year–which has to be ruled germane to the 30 day budget session or be allowed by the Governor–they’ll also oppose legislation that seeks to rollback environmental regulations.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Forest Service will reconsider grazing policy in San Jacinto range amid concerns about bighorn sheep and an endangered butterfly

The U.S. Forest Service has agreed re-evaluate cattle grazing in parts of the San Jacinto Mountains after three environmental groups raised concerns that the animals could be damaging habitat needed by bighorn sheep and an endangered butterfly.

The decision affects about 50,000 acres of public land near the intersection of Highways 74 and 371, where ranchers have had permits to graze cattle.

In October, San Bernardino National Forest officials decided to let grazing continue in the area. The Western Watersheds Project, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity filed an administrative appeal.

The groups contend an environmental assessment used to support the grazing decision did not address effects on habitat used by peninsular bighorn sheep and the Quino checkerspot butterfly, said Michael Connor, California director of the watershed group.

Shortly after Christmas, the Forest Service agreed to analyze how grazing affects the two species and to look for ways to reduce harm, said John Miller, a San Bernardino National Forest spokesman. The service will do wildlife surveys.

Grazing, which has been permitted there for a century, will continue in the area, Miller said. It is allowed under permits held by Rouse Paradise and Wellman ranches.

Measures may include fencing to keep cattle away from the more sensitive areas, he said.

Connor said cattle and bighorn sheep feed on the same limited supply of plants.

"And butterfly eggs and the larvae are on the plants that get eaten or trampled by the cattle," he said.

Cattle also stray from designated grazing areas and foul streams in the upper Palm Canyon area, he said.

The peninsular bighorn sheep population dwindled to less than 300 in the late 1990s and is now considered an endangered population.

The Quino checkerspot butterfly is found only in Riverside and San Diego counties but once was lived throughout Southern California.

Reach David Danelski at 951-368-9471 or

Monday, January 4, 2010

Western Watersheds Project Wins Major Court Victory on Idaho's Nickel Creek Allotment

Online Messenger #167


On December 30, 2009 Western Watersheds Project won a major court victory overturning a BLM grazing decision for the Nickel Creek Allotment.

The Nickel Creek Allotment lies within the Owyhee River Watershed in far southwest Idaho and contains important sage grouse, bighorn sheep, redband trout, columbia spotted frog, and rare plants species' habitat.

However, the allotment has been severely abused by livestock grazing as shown in the Idaho Standards and Guidelines for Healthy Rangelands Assessments that determined the allotment failed all 8 Standards and that livestock grazing was the cause.

BLM managers response to the dire condition was to implement unenforceable "Management Guidelines", which amount to asking public land ranchers to voluntarily improve management, rather than requiring enforceable Terms and Conditions of grazing permits.

The court's Order confirmed WWP's legal claim that the BLM must include Mandatory Terms and Conditions.

This victory sets a clear standard that the BLM must protect public lands and wildlife habitat in every grazing permit issued by the agency.

Read the Decision

WWP was very ably represented in this important litigation by Natalie Havlina of Advocates of the West. Thanks Natalie !

Jon Marvel
Executive Director