Cows cross Little Colorado River

Cattle cross the Little Colorado River near Springerville.

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

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at

(9) comments

Bob Smith

This brings to mind a quote from the late Edward Abbey: "The rancher (with a few honorable exceptions) is a man who strings barbed wire all over the range; drills wells and bulldozes stock ponds; drives off elk and antelope and bighorn sheep; poisons coyotes and prairie dogs; shoots eagles, bears and cougars on sight; supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, povertyweed, cow****, anthills, mud, dust, and flies. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how much he loves the American West. They are nothing but welfare parasites." According to a study by the Pacific Standard 94% of the costs of grazing cattle on public lands is subsidized by the public. In other words; WELFARE. If you could get someone to let you graze your cow and her calf on their land for $1.35 / month would you do it? Of course you would! Spend a few minutes googling the true cost of grazing on public lands and your opinion of ranchers taking advantage of this crooked system to support their "way of life" might change. John Wayne on Welfare crying about his vanishing way of life...makes me sick.




And let the Californication of Arizona begin.


Ain't it the truth, Scott. If we don't all get out and vote RED in November, we're sunk.




Kicking ranchers off "their" land - "property rights"? These ranchers forget that it is Not their land, it is our land and things that hurt our land such as grazing cattle near freshwater streams should Not be allowed. How is grazing private cattle on public land not socialism? How is Trump giving 28 billion to farmers and ranchers not socialism?


enviro-tards continue to prefer our forests black


Right on, Russ!!


Russ_in_WML: "enviro-tards"? Really" You sound like the fourth-grade fan of a fourth-grade president.

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