FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – An environmental group is suing the federal government to try to keep livestock away from Southwest waterways that are home to threatened and endangered species.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit Monday, alleging the U.S. Forest Service isn’t adequately monitoring the land or maintaining fences that would separate domestic cows from rivers and streams in two national forests in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona.
At least eight endangered and threatened species, including birds, snakes and fish, are losing habitat as the cows knock down fences, trample vegetation around shorelines and spoil the water, the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona alleges.
“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 is representing the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Forest Service spokesman Shayne Martin declined comment about the lawsuit but said the agency uses grazing permits to ensure activities on the forest are sustainable for future generations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also is named in the lawsuit but didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The environmental group and the federal government have been in court on this same issue before. Under a 1998 settlement, the Forest Service agreed to remove cattle from much of the riparian areas across hundreds of grazing allotments, environmentalists said.
The recent lawsuit targets more than 30 allotments on 968 square miles of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico and on 520 square miles of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. All include the upper Gila River or its tributaries.
The Center for Biological Diversity said it sent staff or contractors out over the past three years to document signs of cattle near waterways and focused the lawsuit on where it saw the most damage.
The Forest Service wrote to the environmental group in October, saying no action is required on about one-third of the allotments listed in the lawsuit. On others, the agency found unauthorized livestock and noted efforts to have ranchers remove the animals. Still, it acknowledged it has some work to do.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said other factors could be at play in altering the landscape, including elk or other big game tearing down fences, and floods and fires knocking out vegetation.
She called the lawsuit a money-grab by environmentalists who are seeking to prevent ranching families from grazing on forest land.
“This is like rural cleansing, there’s no other way to describe what they continually do,” she said.
The lawsuit asks a judge to order the removal of all domestic cattle from the allotments and require the Forest Service to monitor the riparian areas monthly, instead of annually. The Center for Biological Diversity also wants the Forest Service to fix any damage caused by cows.