Sierra Club poised to sue state, feds, and City of La Quinta over lack of desert bighorn protection
By JIM MATTHEWS
Since 2012, over a dozen endangered peninsula bighorn sheep have died as a result of being lured onto golf courses in La Quinta for food and water. The death accelerated this spring when six lambs were found dead after contracting a bacterial infection from the groomed fairways and greens. Biologists with the Department of Fish and Game (DFW) fear the actual death toll was virtually the entire lamb crop from the sheep herds that live near the city.
Allowing the wild sheep access to golf courses and other green spaces within the city of La Quinta is a violation of the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan – and causing the death of sheep, the City, the operators of the golf courses, and even the homeowners around the courses have also violated state and federal laws that prevent the “take” of endangered species.
In spite of that there has been a collective yawn from all the responsible parties – the agencies that could have prevented ALL of the sheep losses.
Apparently no one cares that over 40 years of labor intensive and expensive management to recover this species from its low of just over 200 animals to today’s modern high of 950-plus is in jeopardy. The sheep herd’s viability is being threatened because the state DFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been unwilling to force the city managers and landowners in the desert communities to comply with regulations and laws.
For the past two years, the City of La Quinta has flaunted a DFW order for fencing to keep the wild sheep out of the golf courses where they contract the bacteria. The city has ignored the rule and has even tried to argue the sheep population is growing because of the golf courses, even though there is absolutely no science to support that idea. But the DFW has sat on its hands while the sheep deaths mounted up and the potential for a massive die-off became more likely.
But this past week, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of they intended to sue all responsible parties if the simple fencing plan that would keep the sheep out of the city isn’t initiated within 60 days. The notice of intent named the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Coachella Valley Conservation Commission, and the city of La Quinta for their failure to implement the requirements of the conservation plan.
The plan is direct in what is required: Fences must be installed within two years if bighorn sheep leave their native habitat areas to use artificial sources of food or water in unfenced areas of existing urban development. The wild sheep have been using the golf courses and since at least 2012 (this has actually been going once since 1996), and it was put on notice in 2014. The city has had two years to build fences. The state and federal wildlife agencies have had two years to enforce their order mandating the city build the fences.
On Thursday this past week, the Sierra Club and CBD, gave the agencies 60 days to address the fencing issue 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 CBD. “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.”
The DFW has been documenting deaths of bighorn sheep that stray onto desert golf courses for at least three decades. It is estimated that about 80 bighorn currently live in the desert foothills above Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, and La Quinta. Rancho Mirage installed eight miles of camouflaged fencing (costing a cool $1 million) in 2002, effectively preventing the sheep from accessing the golf courses there. Not surprisingly, no sheep have died in or around that community since the fencing went up.
So this is not rocket science. The problem is that La Quinta officials have estimated an eight to nine-mile fence will cost $3.4 million, and they have obviously been whining to their state and federal representatives. It must be working because neither the state nor feds have issued citations for violating the law or threatened litigation and fines if the fencing plan (the City of La Qunita has a comprehensive plan done and ready) isn’t implemented.
Apparently when anyone simply asks why the state or feds aren’t doing their jobs, they get the run around, excuses, platitudes, and broken promises. It’s a sad testimony on the way government works today when only lawsuits force government to work.
So the only question now is simply this: Will the feds, state, city, and golf course homeowners’ associations address the issue and build the fence, or will they waste far more than $3.4 million in a lawsuit they will surely lose?
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]