On Sept. 8, an Arizona federal district court ruled in favor of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, whose actions to restore two artificial water developments—placed inside the refuge’s designated wilderness area—were met with a lawsuit. The refuge restored the water developments in order to provide water for drought-stricken wildlife, especially bighorn sheep, whose future survival in the region is dependent upon man-made water sources.
The National Rifle Association, the Safari Club International, and a coalition of national and local sportsmen’s organizations (Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, FNAWS, Arizona Deer Association, Arizona Antelope Association, Yuma Valley Rod and Gun Club, and U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation) filed as a defendant-intervener group in support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages Kofa.
Wilderness and environmental groups that opposed the permanent water sources brought suit against the federal wildlife management agency claiming that it violated the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it allowed work to be conducted on the water developments in a wilderness area. They attempted to persuade the court to order the removal of the water projects, in spite of the importance of these water sources to the survival of bighorn sheep that call the refuge home.
“The court’s decision to recognize that the restrictions of the Wilderness Act do not override the conservation mandates of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act is a great victory for refuge wildlife,” said Chris W. Cox, NRA’s chief lobbyist. “It is important that rogue environmental groups are not allowed to hijack the intent of the Wilderness Act and use it to bully conservation projects like the artificial water developments in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.”
U.S. District Court Judge Mary H. Murguia deferred to the wildlife service’s expertise in managing and conserving refuge wildlife. Furthermore, the court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not violate its NEPA responsibilities by exempting work on the water developments from NEPA review and that restoration of water development was an activity categorically exempt from NEPA requirements.
“We are very happy with this decision by the court, and the ability for Kofa National Wildlife Refuge to move forward in its efforts to improve water sources for the wilderness area’s sheep population,” said Cox.
The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge consists of more than 665,000 acres, of which approximately 510,000 acres are designated as wilderness. It is home to a variety of wildlife including one of the most important desert bighorn sheep populations found in the Southwest. Since 1957, the Kofa herd has been a source of transplant animals for the recovery and sustainment of desert bighorn populations in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, as well as throughout historic range in Arizona. In 2006, a survey of the population found that numbers had dropped to an historic low. An investigation by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified drought as one likely cause of the population decline. The most recent survey, completed in November 2007, estimates a population of 460 sheep on the refuge.