Summer 2002

The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1. Bear River -- Utah, Wyoming, Idaho

2. Salmon River -- Idaho

3. Gila River -- New Mexico, Arizona

4. John Day River -- Oregon

5. Owyhee River -- Oregon, Nevada, Idaho

6. Sweetwater River -- Wyoming

7. Big Hole River -- Montana

8. Little Humboldt River -- Nevada

9. Yampa River -- Colorado

10. Kern River -- California

Buyout or Bailout?

A Killing in the Klamath

2002 Cascadia Times

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

3 Gila River - New Mexico, Arizona


Healed? Not quite yet

The Gila River is the only U.S. river basin with all of its freshwater fish species extinct, on the Endangered Species List, or recommended for listing. In almost every instance, livestock grazing is a major factor.

The Gila begins in the mountains of western New Mexico, reaching the Colorado River 500 miles downstream at Yuma. Cattle have been part of the landscape since the late 1500s when Spaniards arrived. River health has declined ever since. Dozens of species of fish, mammals, amphibians and songbirds including the Jaguar, Bell's vireo, yellow-billed cuckoo, Southwest willow flycatcher, Chiricahua leopard frog, Gila chub, Gila trout, and the spikedace have suffered as a result.

In 1998, the Forest Service made a momentous decision: cows would be banned from riparian areas along tributaries in the upper watersheds of the Gila basin. Congress wrote a check for $400,000 and fences went up along the water line for 230 miles.

High Country News hailed it as "an unprecedented legal agreement" between the Forest Service and two environmental groups, Forest Guardians of Santa Fe and the Center for Biological Diversity of Tucson. As many as 15,000 cattle left 230 miles of rivers and streams in the Gila and its tributaries, the San Francisco, Blue and Verde. "All told, it was one of the largest, if not the largest, single exodus of cattle in the post-Taylor Grazing Act history of federal land management," reporter Tony Davis wrote ("Healing the Gila," HCN, October 22, 2001).

The cows that stayed headed to higher ground. Besides fences, the deal called for the Forest Service to build new watering areas, which is already causing heavier grazing pressure around sensitive upland springs. Some of these areas have become so degraded by livestock -- dewatered by spring developments, trampled by hooves, denuded of vegetation -- that federal agencies no longer recognize them as riparian, says Kirsten Spade of Forest Guardians.

In 2000, the most recent year records are available, the Forest Service did no monitoring on nearly half the 870 grazing allotments in the Southwest, involving millions of acres of rangeland. Of the 469 it did monitor, 190 had violations in riparian areas, upland areas or both. Of these, 69 were riparian violations.

The environmentalists are going back to court.

In October 2001, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against 89 livestock grazing allotments on five national forests in the Gila. Although nearly 900 miles of rivers running through these allotments has been designated as "critical habitat" for two threatened fish (the loach minnow and spikedace), the Forest Service has refused to review the impacts of livestock grazing on the streams, according to the lawsuit.

Forest Guardians filed suit April 4, 2001 in federal district court in Tucson alleging the Forest Service has failed to protect numerous endangered species from harm due to livestock grazing on seven New Mexico and Arizona national forests. The lawsuit, filed by endangered species litigator Robert Wiygul on behalf of Forest Guardians, claims the Forest Service is violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing overgrazing and failing to monitor and limit livestock grazing on nearly 1 million acres of national forest land.

"Blindly permitting livestock grazing in the absence of monitoring to ensure ecosystem recovery and health is completely unacceptable," says Stade. "Once again, the Forest Service has completely ignored its own legal mandates to manage our rivers, grasslands and forests for the needs of native fish and wildlife-before allowing livestock grazing."

John Horning of Forest Guardians says the Forest Service either has no idea whether grazing is affecting listed species or has brazenly allowed livestock to reach levels that harm species, both actions in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

"Cattle are polluting water and ruining the biologically rich streamside zone," says Horning. "The Forest Service continues to bend over backwards to accommodate a few ranchers, and sacrifice our wildlife, plants and streams." The groups say the Forest Service must reduce cattle numbers on hundreds of allotments and prohibit grazing along streams in order to ensure immediate recovery of these biologically important areas.

Forest Guardians filed their tenth in a series of lawsuits on May 7, 2001, to ask that the Forest Service heed the advice of its own biologists, and take action to protect endangered fish and wildlife on the 25,000 acre Copper Creek grazing allotment. The Copper Creek allotment, on the Gila National Forest, was the subject of a recent study by Forest Service biologists who found the area severely degraded as a result of livestock grazing. The study concluded that in order to protect and restore the streams, watersheds, and wildlife of the area, livestock grazing should be immediately halted on the allotment.

Despite the findings of the study, which was completed in 1998, the Forest Service has to date failed to remove livestock to protect the environment of the Copper Creek allotment. In fact, the lawsuit alleges, the Forest Service has failed to complete the formal consultation process required under the Endangered Species Act, a process set up in order to ensure that agency actions do not harm endangered wildlife.

The Copper Creek allotment, like most areas on National Forest lands throughout the Southwest, affects the homes of a vast array of endangered wildlife species, including the Jaguar, Southwest willow flycatcher, Chiricahua leopard frog, loach minnow and spikedace. It is also, according to Forest Guardians, just one of many allotments on which the Forest Service is ignoring evidence that livestock grazing must be halted in order to protect native wildlife and their habitat.

The Gila National Forest has been the subject of previous litigation by Forest Guardians and other groups who allege that continued livestock grazing is causing irreparable damage to watersheds and streams and endangered wildlife such as the Mexican Gray Wolf, the Gila Trout, and the Mexican Spotted Owl. The continued presence of the livestock industry on public lands, the groups argue, is fundamentally incompatible with restoring the balance of nature on these lands. The suit, which is the largest ever filed against cattle grazing in the Western U.S., asks the federal court to halt livestock grazing in Mexican spotted owl habitat until the Forest service reinitiates consultation on its Forest Plans. Mexican spotted owl habitat includes approximately 13 million acres of Southwestern national forest lands.

In addition to Forest Guardians, other groups filing the suit include Gila Watch, White Mountain Conservation League, Carson Forest Watch, Maricopa Audubon Society, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Forest Conservation Council, Arizona Wildlife Federation and T & E Inc. The groups represent more than 50,000 residents of the Southwest who believe public lands should be managed primarily for the protection of fish and wildlife.

The U.S. Forest Service is violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to ensure adequate river flows for endangered fish and songbirds in the Upper Gila River basin of New Mexico and Arizona, according to a suit filed July 9, 2001 by Forest Guardians. The complaint alleges that the Forest Service failed to consider endangered species when it issued over 300 "special use permits" which allow entities to divert and store water from the Gila and Verde Rivers and their tributaries. The suit also claims that the Forest Service has not been complying with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in it's administration of the Special Use Permit program.

"The Forest Service is not giving legally required consideration of the substantial contribution of these permits to drying up rivers, with deadly consequences to endangered fish and wildlife," says Scott Cameron, Forest Guardians' Clean Water Coordinator.