ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - From high desert to montane meadows, the Sacramento Mountains ofsouthern New Mexico are home to some species that are found nowhere else on earth. One of those, a native thistle that can growseveral feet tall, has won a reprieve from the federal governmentand will remain on the threatened and endangered species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has denied a petition byOtero County that sought to delist the Sacramento Mountains thistleas a threatened species, saying increasing threats — namelywater diversion, grazing and insects — indicate the thistlecould likely become endangered in the future and should remainprotected.
Conservationists are hailing this week's decision, hoping itwill lead to land management changes in an area they consider "anabsolute gem."
But the decision is drawing criticism from the man who hasfought for the past six years to have the plant delisted.
County Commission Chairman Doug Moore contends there arehundreds of thousands of the purple-flowered plants in themountains east of Alamogordo and federal protection is no longerneeded.
"I don't want anything to go extinct, but they're just huntingfor reasons to not delist the species," he said. "The EndangeredSpecies Act has a purpose. We need to concentrate on those speciesthat are truly endangered and put our efforts and energy towardsthose because there are a bunch of them out there that really coulduse our help."
The thistle, first classified as threatened in 1987, depends onwet environments. It can be found near springs and in bogsscattered within a 150-square-mile area of the SacramentoMountains, mostly in the Lincoln National Forest.
The number of individual flowering plants in any given year hasfluctuated from 40,000 to 24,000 and has been in decline for morethan a decade, said Tierra Curry, a biologist with the Center forBiological Diversity.
One of the areas of greatest concern for conservationists is theSacramento allotment. At more than 111,000 acres, it's one of thelargest grazing allotments in the U.S. Forest Service'sSouthwestern region.
Nicole Rosmarino of the group WildEarth Guardians said theallotment is where a handful of species converge, not just thethistle. She pointed to the Sacramento Mountains prickly poppy, theSacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly, the New Mexico meadowjumping mouse and the Mexican spotted owl — species that areeither already federally protected or ones that conservationistshave petitioned to have added to the list.
"We think the Sacramento allotment is an absolute gem in termsof natural species diversity, and we think it needs to beprotected," she said.
Rosmarino and Curry said they hope the decision by the Fish andWildlife Service to continue protections for the thistle willultimately lead to retirement of the allotment for grazing.
Moore argued that the federal government needs to manage theLincoln National Forest for multiple uses rather than a singlespecies and should consider a region's culture and customs beforedeveloping recovery plans for threatened and endangeredspecies.
He also complained that the Fish and Wildlife Service has failedto review the status of the thistle and other species every fiveyears as required.
Agency spokesman Tom Buckley acknowledged that the Fish andWildlife Service is behind in conducting status reviews because ofa lack of staff and funding. However, agency officials confirmed areview of the thistle is under way and should be complete thissummer.
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