Updated: Saturday, 05 Jun 2010, 11:19 AM MDT
Published : Saturday, 05 Jun 2010, 11:19 AM MDT
ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - From high desert to montane meadows, the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico are home to some species that are found no where else on earth. One of those, a native thistle that can grow several feet tall, has won a reprieve from the federal government and will remain on the threatened and endangered species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has denied a petition by Otero County that sought to delist the Sacramento Mountains thistle as a threatened species, saying increasing threats — namely water diversion, grazing and insects — indicate the thistle could likely become endangered in the future and should remain protected.
Conservationists are hailing this week's decision, hoping it will lead to land management changes in an area they consider "an absolute gem."
But the decision is drawing criticism from the man who has fought for the past six years to have the plant delisted.
County Commission Chairman Doug Moore contends there are hundreds of thousands of the purple-flowered plants in the mountains east of Alamogordo and federal protection is no longer needed.
"I don't want anything to go extinct, but they're just hunting for reasons to not delist the species," he said. "The Endangered Species Act has a purpose. We need to concentrate on those species that are truly endangered and put our efforts and energy towards those because there are a bunch of them out there that really could use our help."
The thistle, first classified as threatened in 1987, depends on wet environments. It can be found near springs and in bogs scattered within a 150-square-mile area of the Sacramento Mountains, mostly in the Lincoln National Forest.
The number of individual flowering plants in any given year has fluctuated from 40,000 to 24,000 and has been in decline for more than a decade, said Tierra Curry, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
One of the areas of greatest concern for conservationists is the Sacramento allotment. At more than 111,000 acres, it's one of the largest grazing allotments in the U.S. Forest Service's Southwestern region.
Nicole Rosmarino of the group WildEarth Guardians said the allotment is where a handful of species converge, not just the thistle. She pointed to the Sacramento Mountains prickly poppy, the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly, the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the Mexican spotted owl — species that are either already federally protected or ones that conservationists have petitioned to have added to the list.
"We think the Sacramento allotment is an absolute gem in terms of natural species diversity, and we think it needs to be protected," she said.
Rosmarino and Curry said they hope the decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to continue protections for the thistle will ultimately lead to retirement of the allotment for grazing.
Moore argued that the federal government needs to manage the Lincoln National Forest for multiple uses rather than a single species and should consider a region's culture and customs before developing recovery plans for threatened and endangered species.
He also complained that the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to review the status of the thistle and other species every five years as required.
Agency spokesman Tom Buckley acknowledged that the Fish and Wildlife Service is behind in conducting status reviews because of a lack of staff and funding. However, agency officials confirmed a review of the thistle is under way and should be complete this summer.