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Washington, DC — A multi-state legal fight has broken out over the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona expanding artificial water impoundments inside wilderness areas for desert bighorn sheep. The refuge’s own long-time biologist, however, says this entire fracas is needless because the refuge relied on inaccurate data to make a flawed wildlife management decision, according to a legal brief filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

After the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) used damaging heavy equipment to construct and expand two tanks inside congressionally-designated wilderness, where new structures are forbidden, Wilderness Watch filed suit in June 2007, arguing that the action violated the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Joining the suit are the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, the Western Watersheds Project, and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.

On the other side of the suit, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which runs the refuge, is joined by Safari Club International, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, and the Yuma Valley Rod and Gun Club. The defendants and their allies contend, among other things, that bulldozing wilderness for artificial water tanks is needed to save bighorn sheep, the iconic desert-adapted game species in the 665,000-acre refuge, from dying of thirst. The hunting groups are involved because trophy hunters sometimes wait near tanks to harvest bighorn rams and mule deer when they come to drink.

Ron Kearns is a wildlife biologist specializing in desert bighorn sheep management and fragile Sonoran desert ecology and flora. He worked for 25 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was at Kofa National Wildlife Refuge as a biologist and law enforcement officer for 18 of those years. In an amicus brief filed today through PEER, Kearns argues his former agency used faulty data and acted irrationally:

  • Refuge management “completely ignored data indicating that a lack of freestanding water is not the reason for the decline in the bighorn population”;
  • “Arizona Game and Fish Department’s (AGFD) John Hervert incorrectly filled out a water development worksheet by indicating that there was NOT a perennial water source available to big game within four miles of the new [tank]. However, there are three established water tanks well within four miles of the project area…” and
  • “Management’s justification for keeping the new tank developments secret was truly vexing and borderline absurd. Last summer during a conference call…then-Refuge Manager Paul Cornes stated that they could not involve the public – apparently except for the hunting groups that helped construct the tanks – or even reveal the locations of the new tanks because of some unnamed, dangerous person…”

“This is a case where refuge management set up a bogus conflict in yielding to pressure to run a federal wildlife preserve like a bighorn game farm,” stated PEER Staff Attorney Adam Draper, who drafted the brief, noting that the refuge belatedly set up a camera which would have provided definitive evidence whether bighorn were even using the new McPherson Tank. “The refuge manager who created this snafu is gone; the new manager, Mitch Ellis, should try to work with everyone to resolve this mess.”

Another brewing controversy on the Kofa stems from allowing the state to trap and collar an imperiled population of cougars, using the GPS collars to then track and kill cougars that may naturally prey on bighorn. Just this past Saturday, March 29th, Arizona Game & Fish killed another cougar as soon as its GPS collar indicated it had left the Kofa NWR boundary. “The GPS collars are death sentences for these cougars, and Refuge Manager Ellis should stop allowing cougars to be trapped and collared while on the refuge,” stated Draper. Meanwhile, despite spending significant funds to kill cougars in the name of bighorn protection, refuge management still allows the annual hunting harvest of over 10 bighorn rams on Kofa NWR.


Read the PEER brief for Ron Kearns

View the Wilderness Watch motion for summary judgment

Look at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service response

See how a similar controversy was resolved at Mojave National Preserve

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