An environmental group has filed a lawsuit to protect deteriorating streams by halting cattle grazing on the Apache-Sitgreaves Forests as well as two others in New Mexico.
The Center for Biological Diversity says the Forest Service has failed to protect the Gila River and other riparian areas from the impact of cattle grazing and has asked a federal judge to shut down the grazing programs until the Forest Service can adequately monitor the effects.
The lawsuit would affect 30 grazing allotments in the Apache-Sitgreaves in Arizona as well as the Carson and Gila national forests in New Mexico. The nearly 1,000 square miles in New Mexico and 500 square miles in Arizona include the upper Gila River and its tributaries like the Blue, the San Francisco and the Tularosa.
The New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association has decried the lawsuit, saying the problems documented in riparian areas come from fires, floods, droughts, elk knocking down fences and other sources besides cattle grazing.
Cattle Grower’s Association Executive Director Caren Cowan told the Associated Press the lawsuit amounted to “rural cleansing” by driving families off their land in western rural communities.
The lawsuit asks the US District Court in Tucson to order the removal of cattle from allotments until the Forest Service can set up a monthly rather than annual monitoring system for riparian areas and start repairing the damage done by cattle along streams.
“There can’t be any dispute that, at a bare minimum, in order to prevent species endangerment, the cows have to be off the river,” said Brian Segee, who represents the Tucson-based environmental group.
The lawsuit comes in the face of new rules issued by the Trump Administration to significantly weaken enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. The new rules would require federal agencies to take into account economic impacts of protecting an endangered species and revoke many of the existing protections for threatened, but not yet endangered, species.
The new rules also prohibit consideration of projected climate change on critical habitat, which could have a big impact on the southwest where an increase in drought years has dramatically affected riparian areas and grasslands. Riparian areas are streamside habitats that are often grassy and tree-lined.
Riparian areas play a key role in the life cycles of more than 80 percent of the species in the southwest, including many endangered species. The great majority of riparian areas in the southwest are “impaired,” from grazing, water diversions, dams, drought and wildfires, according to numerous studies. Many have gone dry altogether.
Endangered species dependent on the Gila and its tributaries include southwestern willow flycatchers, yellow-billed cuckoos, Gila Chub, loach minnow and spikedace fish, the Chiricahua leopard frog and the narrow-necked and northern Mexican garter snakes.
American Rivers in 2019 classified the Gila as one of the nation’s most endangered waterways and recent surveys have shown “widespread degradation of streamside habitat and water quality,” according to a release by the Centers for Biological Diversity.
Rep. Paul Gosar, who represents Western Arizona and Rim Country, hailed the new rules saying the changes would protect property rights and encourage voluntary conservation. “For too long livestock producers have battled against the federal government’s attempts to reduce grazing on public lands. This language is crucial to safeguarding ranchers from frivolous lawsuits that force them off their allotments subjecting them to economic ruin.”
The filing represents the latest front in a long-running battle that dates back to at least 1998. At that time, the Forest Service settled a lawsuit by barring grazing along hundreds of miles of streamside habitat and promised to conclude a long-delayed consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the impact of grazing.
Subsequent studies have shown fencing and management that excludes cattle from riparian areas during certain times of the year can allow the recovery of crucial, streamside vegetation. However, unrestricting grazing can have big impacts – especially during the kinds of intermittent drought conditions that have dominated the past decade.
“It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to keep livestock from trampling these fragile southwestern rivers, but the Forest Service has turned a blind eye,” said Brian Segee, an attorney at the Center. “We found cows, manure and flattened streambanks along nearly every mile of the waterways we surveyed. We hope this case will get cattle off these streams and renew the agency’s commitment to protecting endangered wildlife and our spectacular public lands.”
Many ranchers say they’ve made great progress in managing grazing to protect riparian areas, including exhaustive monitoring of the condition of grasslands. They maintain that stock tanks and other water development efforts provide water for wildlife as well as cattle.
Cattle grazing has had widespread impacts on riparian areas – especially in the face of drought, according to a survey of more than 100 scientific studies by researchers from Northern Arizona University and Prescott College.
The study looked at various grazing management approaches, from high-intensity grazing for short periods of time to livestock enclosures – with intensive, long-term grazing in a much smaller area.
Published studies “make a compelling case that livestock grazing should be carefully controlled, if not altogether eliminated, along riparian zones,” the authors concluded.
However, other studies showed that grazing can be managed without destructive effects in upland areas, with cattle excluded from streams during key portions of the year. Studies in semi-arid grasslands found that ungrazed sections actually had fewer plant species and no decline in insect abundance in years of average rainfall. However, ungrazed areas supported three times as many birds during drought years.
After 50 years of study, it’s clear that in some area grazing “degrades” the land – but in other areas have little harmful effect, the researchers concluded.
“In fact, there is also compelling evidence that livestock grazing can speed the recovery of certain degraded sites and that grazing may increase productivity in some ecosystems. Clearly, efforts to characterize grazing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are overly simplistic and problematic.”
However, the Centers for Biological Diversity lawsuit turns on the lack of monitoring and management of the grazing allotments through which the Gila River and its tributaries pass. The lack of an adequate monitoring system makes it impossible to determine how much grazing is contributing to the documented decline in streamside vegetation, water quality and productivity, according to the lawsuit.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org