Fastest land animals in North America, yet not quite faster than a speeding bullet, nor more powerful than the gun lobby
SONORAN DESERT NATONAL MONUMENT, Arizona––Why is the endangered Sonoran desert pronghorn safer on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, strafed and bombed day and night since 1941 by 20 squadrons of U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps aircraft, than on the 496,400-acre habitat nominally split off from the Goldwater range in 2001 to protect them?
The answer, simply put, is that while the Pentagon has a long history of trying to evade most environmental regulation, all four armed branches of the U.S. military have for more than 30 years taken evident pride in showing off their ability to train troops without harming such species as the Sonoran desert pronghorn; the California gnatcatcher, native to Camp Pendleton, California; the spotted owl, whose critical habitat includes Joint Base Fort Lewis-McChord, Washington; and the Mojave desert tortoise, native to Fort Irwin and several other bases in California and Nevada.
Avoiding harm to endangered species is practice for avoiding harm to civilians
Military personnel have often explained that practicing for combat in proximity to endangered species is good preparation for avoiding harm to civilians in actual warfare.
Only small portions of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range have ever been bombed, strafed, or otherwise exposed to potentially lethal activity at one time. Most of the range is used only as flight path. The Sonoran desert pronghorns––the fastest land animals native to North America––pay little attention to aircraft high in the sky, but scatter if a jet is low enough to drop bombs or fire rockets.
Further explained Mike Coffeen, coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery team for Sonoran pronghorn recovery team at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, back in 2005, the Air Force and Marines “use spotters to ensure that no pronghorn are present” before releasing munitions.
BLM makes “protected” habitat a free-fire zone
The Bureau of Land Management, by contrast, handed responsibility in 2001 for managing the then newly created Sonoran Desert National Monument, almost immediately opened the entire almost 500,000-acre tract to recreational shooting.
The Bureau of Land Management in so doing reasoned that, “Shooting activities including target shooting, shooting practice, ‘plinking,’ sporting clays, skeet, and sighting in have been going on the Monument since firearms were introduced to the region.”
“Public demand for places to shoot”
Further, the Bureau of Land Management explained, “Increasingly, Arizona’s broad public demand for places to shoot is being shifted to public lands managed by the BLM.”
None of this, however, recognized that the Sonoran Desert National Monument was created precisely to protect wildlife, including Sonoran desert pronghorns and threatened saguaro cactus, and ancient Native American archaeological sites, from the explosions and disturbance that are a routine part of military operations on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.
The Bureau of Land Management in effect authorized shooters to shoot up an area just slightly smaller than Rhode Island, with predictable results.
“Extreme” damage at 16 sites
A 2005 impact survey found that shooters had already damaged 69 of the 348 Sonoran Desert National Monument sites visited, damaging saguaro cactus at 28 of the sites, doing “extreme” damage at 16 of those sites.
“In a 2015 court decision in a case challenging a plan that allowed shooting throughout 100% of the monument, the court found the BLM arbitrarily ignored its own study that concluded target shooting could not be safely and appropriately conducted in the monument, given the patterns and volume of visitors, and the number and variety of historical and natural objects found across this biologically and archaeologically dynamic landscape,” summarized Western Environmental Law Center communications director Brian Sweeney in an April 22, 2022 media release.
“After that ruling,” Sweeney recalled, “BLM revised its plan to allow shooting in 90% of the monument.”
That reduced the potential target area to just about the size of Rhode Island.
BLM ordered to reconsider
The Western Environmental Law Center fought on in court for another seven years.
On April 14, 2022, Sweeney wrote, “the Arizona District Court in Phoenix approved a legal agreement requiring the Bureau of Land Management to re-examine its decision to allow target shooting in 90% of Sonoran Desert National Monument.”
Instead, explained Sweeney, “The agreement requires BLM to conduct new surveys and consider amending the Sonoran Desert National Monument resource management plan with regards to target shooting by October 21, 2023.
“As part of the agreement, BLM must consider a management option protecting from target shooting designated wilderness and lands with wilderness characteristics; the indigenous Komatke Trail, known for its many pottery shards, and a half-mile buffer on the north side of the trail; the Vekol Valley; the portion of the monument formerly part of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range [apparently most of it]; and areas with monument objects including saguaro cacti and petroglyphs that could be adversely impacted.”
Meanwhile the shooting continues
Unfortunately, Sweeney added, “target shooting remains permitted in the current 90% of the monument until the BLM provides its new analysis and reconsiders whether and how it could allow for this use, while also protecting the visitors, and the natural and cultural resources the monument was established to protect.”
The U.S. Sonoran desert pronghorn population, meanwhile, has increased from only 21 as recently as 2002 to somewhere between 375 and 400, according to national pronghorn captive breeding program supervisor Noah Ratliff.
About 250 Sonoran desert pronghorn remain on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, said Ratliff in an April 27, 2022 video statement, with somewhere between 100 and 240 in a separate northern herd created by releases of captive-bred pronghorn at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge north of Yuma, Arizona.
Next best pronghorn habitat is U.S. Army firing range
This habitat includes the adjacent 800,000-acre Yuma Proving Ground, operated by the U.S. Army under various names since 1943, which boasts “the longest overland artillery range in the nation.”
“In a typical year,” says Wikipedia, “over 500,000 artillery, mortar and missile rounds are fired, 36,000 parachute drops take place, 200,000 miles are driven on military vehicles, and over 4,000 air sorties are flown from the proving ground’s Laguna Army Airfield.”
Sonoran desert pronghorn nonetheless appear to find the Yuma Proving Ground, like the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, far more congenial than the Sonoran Desert National Monument––at least until and unless the recreational shooting stops at the latter.