Lawsuit Challenges Forest Service’s Failure to Protect Endangered Species From Livestock on Arizona, New Mexico Waterways

A press release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration’s Failure to Protect Endangered Species From Livestock on Arizona, New Mexico Waterways

SILVER CITY, N.M.— The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration today for failing to prevent livestock from damaging southwestern rivers and streams.

The waterways are home to numerous endangered and threatened species: southwestern willow flycatchers, yellow-billed cuckoos, Gila chub, loach minnow and spikedace fish, Chiricahua leopard frogs, and narrow-headed and northern Mexican garter snakes.

Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson, says the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing cows to trample rivers and streams on more than 30 grazing allotments in the upper Gila River watershed on Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.

Recent surveys by the Center found severe cattle damage on all major waterways in both national forests, resulting in widespread degradation of streamside forest habitat and water quality, and imperiling several rare species.

“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.”

The rivers covered by the suit include the Gila, San Francisco, Tularosa and Blue rivers. In a historic 1998 legal settlement with the Center, the Forest Service agreed to prohibit domestic livestock grazing from hundreds of miles of southwestern streamside habitats while it conducted a long-overdue consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts of grazing on threatened and endangered species.

That effort and subsequent consultations have repeatedly confirmed that livestock grazing in arid southwestern landscapes destroys riparian habitat and imperils native fish, birds and other animals dependent on that habitat.

Poorly managed livestock grazing, persistent drought, dewatering, global warming and invasive species have taken an increasing toll on southwestern rivers. This has resulted in the recent federal protection of several additional threatened or endangered species that depend on southwestern riparian areas, including two species of garter snake, the cuckoo and the leopard frog.

These impacts, as well as the looming threat of a major diversion project, led American Rivers to name the Gila the nation’s most endangered river in 2019.

7 thoughts on “Lawsuit Challenges Forest Service’s Failure to Protect Endangered Species From Livestock on Arizona, New Mexico Waterways”

  1. It has always surprised me that cattle get to do what they want (meaning ranchers) and the FS looks the other way. It took years of action to get the cattle mostly off sensitive riparian areas on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area where the law that established the area gave salmon a higher and more protective use. If loggers created the environmental destruction they would be shut down right away. But not the cattle.
    Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for doing the work the USFS should be doing.

  2. Forest plans revised so far under the 2012 Planning Rule have not really highlighted grazing issues.
    There are forest plans being revised now in the southwest that will have to meet the new requirements for ecological integrity. Plan components will have to move conditions in riparian areas towards the natural range of variation. There’s also this specific requirement: “Plan components must ensure that no management practices causing detrimental changes in water temperature or chemical composition, blockages of water courses, or deposits of sediment that seriously and adversely affect water conditions or fish habitat shall be permitted within the riparian management zones or the site specific delineated riparian areas.” If past requirements and practices have not “ensured” this result, then things are going to have to change.

  3. I think the tag about “The Trump Administration’s Failure to Protect” is pretty funny, given that I would bet those allotments have been there for quite some time.

    To me, it makes more sense for administrations to be targeted for doing things like in this WEG press release, rather than not doing things that other administrations also didn’t do.

    • Personally, I don’t find the “failure to protect” endangered species from livestock on waterways in Arizona and New Mexico “pretty funny” at all, no matter if the Trump administration, Obama Administration or Bush administration is currently running the U.S. Forest Service.

      As a former career U.S. Forest Service employee, what’s your opinion about the allegation that the USFS is failing to protect endangered species from livestock damages on our National Forests, Sharon?

      • First of all, I meant “funny” as in funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha. My point was that cattle have been grazing on National Forest land since before the National Forests were established). This is a pretty interesting historical document.

        “For the two or three decades prior to the creation of the forest reserves, ranchers had free, unregulated use of these lands for summer range, just as they did on all of the public domain.
        There was extreme competition for grass between the big sheep and cattle outfits and the homesteaders. Quick profits were legend, but losses often were heavy, too. There was little incentive for careful management of a business when the major resources of the business, the public lands, were external to the control of the livestock industry. Indeed, some “public land policies forced overgrazing upon the stockman and homesteader.”11 The livestock associations by the late 1890’s began agitating for some effective control of the public domain. Political lobbying by the livestock industry may have contributed to the establishment of the forest reserves in the Southwest. However, after the Forest Service replaced the Department of the Interior as the managers of the reserves, free access and use by cattlemen was proscribed.”

        By the time the first forest reserves were proclaimed in 1891, the free use of public lands by cattlemen and sheepmen had become a way of life. They knew nothing of grazing capacity and there was no fund of technical knowledge about forage management to rely on. Overgrazing could not readily be recognized until in an advanced stage. Thus, when the Forest Service came into being February 1, 1905, the most complex problems facing southwestern foresters related to grazing rights and range management. Instructions to foresters in the Use Book regarding grazing responsibilities were very simple: “Inform yourself as to what sheep and cattle men graze their stock upon your district, the number he actually owns, and whether or not he confines himself to the range described in his permit.”

        My point was simply that the history is long, and if, as CBD claims, the FS said that they would do something in 97 and didn’t, it can hardly be laid entirely at the feet of the Trump administration.
        I’ve read enough CBD lawsuits to not consider their legal documents necessarily a source of accurate info. I wonder if there are groups who would help monitor, identify individual cattle and help to find and fix fences.


Leave a Comment