Legal Challenge Pursued Over Failure to Protect Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

Federal, State, Local Entities Violated Conservation Plan by Ignoring Fencing Requirements

Peninsular bighorn sheep. Photo by California Department of Fish & Wildlife
Peninsular bighorn sheep. Photo by California Department of Fish & Wildlife

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. September 27, 2016 – Conservation groups today filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Coachella Valley Conservation Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and city of La Quinta for their failure to implement the requirements of the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan to protect the endangered Peninsular Ranges population of bighorn sheep.

The conservation plan requires fences to be installed within two years if bighorn sheep leave protected habitat areas to use artificial sources of food or water in unfenced areas of existing urban development. Unfortunately, sheep have been using such areas in La Quinta since 2012, resulting in 12 documented deaths of the endangered animals.

Today’s notice, from the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club, gives the wildlife agencies, commission and city 60 days to address the situation before a lawsuit is filed.

“Fencing to prevent harm to bighorn is a fundamental conservation tool that works,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center. “Foot-dragging has allowed bighorn to be lured into harm’s way, leading to a dozen deaths in the past four years. This endangered bighorn population just can’t afford those mortalities.”

Numerous incidents have been documented of sheep entering urban areas, including running through traffic. The fencing was a key mitigation requirement, relied upon in approving several large developments within and near the city of La Quinta, but has not been fulfilled. The conservation promised by the plan, for bighorn or other species, cannot be achieved if development goes forward without the needed mitigation.

“The Coachella Valley MSHCP is a well-designed habitat plan,” said Joan Taylor, conservation chair for the local Sierra Club group in the Coachella Valley. “But the ongoing bighorn deaths in La Quinta are inexcusable when such an easy solution is available…and required.”

Peninsular bighorn sheep are known for both the characteristic large, spiral horns of the males and the species’ ability to survive in the dry, rugged mountains dividing the desert and coastal regions of California. This Peninsular Ranges population inhabits the rugged desert mountains running from the San Gorgonio Pass south into Baja California. Once the most numerous desert bighorn, the U.S. population of Peninsular bighorn plummeted from 1,171 sheep in 1974 to a mere 276 by 1996. The species gained state status as rare and threatened in 1971, but was not listed by the federal government as an endangered population until 1998. The population has since increased to 800, which still represents only a fraction of historic numbers.

Known as the “bighorn of the inverted mountain ranges,” Peninsular bighorn are restricted to lower slopes due to the dense chaparral that grows at higher elevations in these mountains, which forces the species to live near urban areas in the Coachella Valley.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 2.4 million members and supporters nationwide. In addition to creating opportunities for people of all ages, levels and locations to have meaningful outdoor experiences, the Sierra Club works to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and litigation.