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WASHINGTON DC — Conservationists learned today that the final designation of critical habitat for the Peirson’s milkvetch will be only 21,800 acres after being cut nearly 60% by Craig Manson, a Bush anti-conservation political appointee with the Interior Department in Washington DC.

Much of the critical habitat designation will be in wilderness, an area already closed to off-roading, while proposed critical habitat areas in the central and south dunes have been eliminated. The final rule will be published tomorrow in the federal register.

Last August, local biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in California proposed 52,780 acres of the 160,000 acre Algodones (Imperial) Dunes to be designated critical habitat for the survival and recovery of the Peirson’s milkvetch (Astragulus magdalenae var. peirsonii), an endangered attractive flowering plant threatened by intensive off-road vehicle use, and found only on these Sonoran desert dunes in the U.S. “Last year’s science-based proposal from local biologists should have been maintained or expanded, but it was gutted by Bush administration political appointees in Washington, continuing a disturbing anti-conservation pattern and practice,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Ecologist with the Center. “Critical habitat works, if is it designated based on good science and species’ recovery needs. This designation is far too small, and will jeopardize the conservation and recovery of the species. We may challenge it in court.”

Fragile habitat and endemic species on the Algodones Dunes are harmed by 240,000+ off-roaders on some weekends. This intensive use destroys vegetation and wildlife habitat, pollutes the air, displaces non-motorized visitors, and creates criminal problems that stress law enforcement.

“The Interior Department’s decision to significantly cut the amount of protected habitat defies the recommendations of local biologists with the best knowledge of what the milkvetch needs to survive millions of menacing knobby tires,” said Karen Schambach of PEER. “Once again, we see the Bush administration’s political interests trumping sound science.”

“It’s a shocking decrease from the local biologists’ original science-based proposal,” said Ileene Anderson, Botanist with the California Native Plant Society. “Science has been undermined by a political agenda. This critical habitat designation fails to uphold the intent and purpose of the ESA. Tragically, the Peirson’s milkvetch, which has already suffered losses in numbers and habitat, will be 60% closer to extinction.”

The Bush administration has cut 94% of all endangered species critical habitat proposals by an average of 79%.

“It’s a bad sign when the politicians take over for the biologists,” said Elden Hughes, Chair of the Sierra Club Desert Committee and longtime desert conservation champion. “And this final ruling is the result.”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which administers the dunes, is trying to finalize a plan (RAMP) eliminate protections on 50,000 acres of currently protected dunes habitat. An earlier FWS permit for the RAMP was pulled by the agency after a federal judge indicated it would be ruled illegal. FWS stated in last August’s proposed rule, “Species specific management needs and measures for Astragulus magdalenae var. peirsonii are not addressed in the RAMP.”

The BLM plan to remove the protected areas would be devastating to dozens of imperiled species — including the Peirson’s milkvetch, desert tortoise, flat-tailed horned lizard, and Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle — worsen air pollution, and run off hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, Native Americans and others. In addition to allowing intense environmental harm, opening conservation areas to off-road vehicles will displace non-motorized visitors, costing nearby communities in the Imperial Valley and Yuma at least $3.3 million annually in sustainable recreation related spending. The State of California OHV Commission has rejected the one-sided RAMP, denying BLM millions in state funding since 2002 due to repeated failures to protect the dunes and manage for sustainability.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently rejected a petition by the off-road industry to remove Endangered Species Act protection for the Peirson’s milkvetch, finding that the rare flowering plant is harmed by ORV’s and in need of continued legal protection.

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