Cows get marching orders

Tucson environmentalists beat stream-loving bovines

  • Boaters meet cows in the Gila Box Riparian Nat'l Conservation Area

    Diane Drobka/BLM

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has told the federal Bureau of Land Management that cattle must be removed soon from rivers and streams on 15 southeastern grazing allotments in Arizona.

The Fish and Wildlife order, contained in a biological opinion, was spurred by a lawsuit filed in Tucson federal court last year by the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. The suit said the Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM failed to adequately study grazing's effects on endangered species on nearly 300 BLM allotments covering 1.5 million acres, from Tucson east to the New Mexico border.

The court ordered further consultation between the two agencies, resulting in the biological opinion released last month. The Fish and Wildlife Service said cows had to be removed to protect 15 endangered birds, fish and plants. Although the BLM rated riparian areas in good condition on nine of the 15 allotments, Fish and Wildlife biologists said that cattle might damage endangered fish and plants on all 15 by trampling on streamside habitats.

The order represents the first time in recent memory that a federal agency has ordered cattle off a large number of riparian areas. Last spring, the Forest Service had rancher Kit Laney remove 1,200 head of cattle from the troubled Diamond Bar allotment that straddles numerous streams near Silver City, N.M.

Although ranchers have 75 days to appeal once the order is formally given, Clifton, Ariz.-area rancher Jeff Menges says he's angry about the decision.

Since 1979, he has managed two allotments along the Gila and San Francisco rivers, including part of the BLM's Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. Since 1990, he said, he and the BLM put up enough fence to keep his 305 cattle from grazing along the rivers except in the wintertime.

The Fish and Wildlife biological opinion, however, said that more than four miles of riparian area on the Gila Box allotment are at risk or in unknown condition. Menges said he's seen small cottonwoods and willows slowly returning to those areas since he switched to winter grazing. One mile of the Gila on the allotment is listed in proper functioning condition in the opinion, and Menges is convinced that other stretches will recover as well.

"We worked pretty hard to keep cattle out, so we could have the reward of grazing in the winter," Menges said. "Now, we've switched from an incentives and reward system to a command and control system. The burden will lie on me to maintain the fences to keep the cattle out. It will be an economic hardship with no reward at all."

On other allotments, the Wildlife Service opinion requires less stringent measures. They include giving the BLM the option to remove cattle, restrict grazing to winter months, and monitor livestock watering tanks for the presence of non-native fish that could outcompete endangered native fish.

The opinion and its order to remove cows marks a second major victory this year for the Southwest Center. During the summer, it won a federal Court of Appeals ruling ordering the Forest Service to make sure that grazing on its land in the Southwest doesn't violate its guidelines and standards.

Still, the Center isn't celebrating. It contends that the Fish and Wildlife Service should have ordered cattle off riparian areas in far more allotments, perhaps more than 100. In letters to Fish and Wildlife, the Center contended that the agency failed to look at grazing's effects on numerous other endangered species, including the bald eagle, the aplomado falcon, the jaguar and the lesser long-nosed bat, and had inaccurately concluded that grazing was not likely to affect those species' survival.

The Center pointed out that the Fish and Wildlife Service's analysis on the flycatcher, for instance, stated that riparian areas were at risk or in bad shape on 21 stretches of rivers on 19 grazing allotments, and that the condition of rivers and streams is unknown on 25 other allotments. Yet the service ordered no permanent cattle removals to protect the flycatcher; it said that cattle should stay off riparian areas during breeding season, when cattle are most likely to eat from trees and shrubs.

David Hogan, the Center's rivers coordinator, is careful not to give the Fish and Wildlife Service too much credit for its opinion. "When you do nothing to protect endangered species for years," he said, "the second you do anything, it becomes a historic moment. The reality of this decision is that it does not provide for the survival and recovery of endangered species. This biological opinion is a Band-Aid over a gaping grazing wound."

BLM officials aren't happy either; they said they'd been trying to work cooperatively with ranchers and in consultations with the Fish and Wildlife Service to gradually improve riparian areas. Now, they'll have to start dealing with the cumbersome process of getting the cows off. They'll be issuing cattle removal orders to the ranchers within two months. Ranchers will have 75 days from then to appeal or remove the cattle.

"We're not managing. We don't have the time to work with permittees and do an on-the-ground solution," said Clay Templin, a BLM range management specialist in Safford. "What we're getting into now, everything turns more into a confrontational standpoint. We're working on interrogatories and legal briefs."

Tony Davis writes for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.