Healing the Gila

Three years after the Forest Service booted cows off some Southwestern rivers, the battle over grazing in the desert is still not over

  • CATTLE CROSSING: Water gaps along the fenced-off SanFrancisco River allow cattle in for a drink (1999 photo)

    Michael P. Berman
  • HOLDING ONTO THE HOMESTEAD: David Kelly at hisgrandfather's grave on the San Francisco River

    Michael P. Berman
  • WHOSE HABITAT? The Black Bob allotment, where wintergrazing may resume

    Michael P. Berman
  • Locator map for the San Francisco River

    Diane Sylvain

GLENWOOD, N.M. - It's a sparkling late summer day, and Kelly Cranston and Martin Taylor are in an ebullient mood as they hike toward the San Francisco River. The sky is crystal blue, the temperature hovers in the low 80s and, below, the river glows with warm sunlight.

Youthful cottonwoods and willows, two to 12 feet tall, shiver in the wind, a few displaying the first autumnal hints of yellow. Grasses crowd both sides of the narrow channel. Reeds, sedges and other marsh grasses sway nearby. Three frogs leap out of the water.

"It's beautiful," the thinly mustachioed Cranston proclaims as he descends one of southwest New Mexico's innumerable juniper-dotted hillsides. "I wouldn't call it 100 percent recovered, but it's well on its way. There's nothing else like it in the state."

Cranston, a five-year resident of the Glenwood area and a part-time activist, and Taylor, a staffer for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, have watched the transformation of the San Francisco River. Just three years ago, the river was a gravelly ditch, lined with a scatter of aging cottonwoods. Cattle wallowed in its silt-clouded waters.

But an unprecedented legal agreement between two environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service, signed in April 1998, booted as many as 15,000 cattle off 230 miles of rivers and streams across Arizona and New Mexico. The agreement affected more than a dozen rivers and streams, including the Gila, San Francisco, Blue and Verde rivers, and covered 75 federal grazing allotments. It forced ranchers to fence off cattle from the rivers and, in some cases, to dramatically cut herds. 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.

Though the removal of cattle from riparian areas had been slowly gaining momentum in the Southwest over the last decade, the 1998 agreement represented an almost complete turnabout for the Gila National Forest, which had for many years maintained a tight relationship with ranchers. It immediately caused emotional and economic pain for the region's cattle ranchers, some of whom called it quits.

For Cranston and Taylor, the comeback of the San Francisco shows the power of environmental litigation at a time when that tactic has come under increasing attack from more moderate environmental groups and agency officials. It took six years of litigation in the name of protecting two imperiled minnow species and one endangered bird to bring the Forest Service to the table. The agreement is all the more remarkable because it happened on the wise-use movement's home turf: Catron County, N.M., where county officials and other residents have fought a cold war against the environmental movement for a decade (HCN, 6/24/96: Catron County's politics heat up as its land goes bankrupt).

Still, the recovery of the San Francisco and other streams in the Gila National Forest hasn't closed the book on the very old controversy about whether cattle grazing and healthy streamside areas can coexist in the desert Southwest. The question of how much grazing a river can stand continues to split environmentalists, as well as many agency officials, into separate camps.

"They are seeing recovery," says Courtney White of the Santa Fe-based Quivira Coalition. "But you don't necessarily need the cattle to be excluded year-round. The trick is getting different management."

Yet one thing is clear: Taking cattle off desert rivers yields dramatic - and fast - results.

That alone is reason enough to celebrate, according to the Center for Biological Diversity and the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, whose barrage of lawsuits brought about the agreement.

"This will do more for wildlife than anything else we've ever done," says Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has won 127 of 194 lawsuits in less than a decade (HCN, 3/13/00). "And what we're seeing out there right now on the San Francisco is nothing. Imagine 25 years of no grazing. It will be a mecca for wildlife, for cuckoos, otters, songbirds and jaguars. It will rival the rainforest."

An unholy mess

A wistful tone enters Suckling's voice when the activist discusses his early days on the San Francisco River. If he could have lived anywhere he wanted 200 years ago, Suckling says, he would have picked the upper Gila watershed in its pre-cattle era.

What he calls the Gila Headwaters Ecosystem takes in about 10 million acres of largely federally owned streams, meadows, deserts and forests in eastern Arizona and southwest New Mexico, including the headwaters of the Gila River. This is an ecological collision zone, where the Rocky Mountains' southern tip meets the edges of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Here, the streams alone play host to more than two dozen fish species.

But the San Francisco Suckling first encountered back in 1989 was not the river of his dreams. He and future Center for Biological Diversity colleagues Peter Galvin and Todd Schulke had come to southwest New Mexico's Catron County, not to fight ranchers but to count Mexican spotted owls for the Forest Service. Suckling and Schulke bought 40 acres along the San Francisco just south of Reserve, N.M. Galvin bought another 40 acres downstream.

At first, "we had thousands of cows stomping through our land, polluting the river and making an unholy mess of the whole landscape," Suckling says. The San Francisco was the three men's only source of drinking water at the time, and they pledged to free the river from cattle within a decade.

In those days, the river was treated much like a trough. Cattle drank the water and ate the neighboring grass and tree seedlings. "The river was the heart and soul of this operation," says Eddie Atwood, 74, who was raised near Reserve. Hugh B. McKeen, a 65-year-old ex-county commissioner whose ranching family first worked the San Francisco in 1888, agrees: "The river is a core area of your (federal grazing) permit."

Public-land grazing has always been a political issue in Catron County. To local officials, it's the area's "custom and culture," and federal grazing permits are an all-American private-property right. In the early 1990s, when the county commissioners believed that federal environmental regulations posed a threat to that property right, they passed laws that authorized arrest of federal agents, asserted the county's right to help manage federal lands, and banned release of mountain lions and wolves into the wild. For dozens of county governments around the West seeking to throw off the shackles of federal control, Catron was a beacon (HCN, 5/2/94: A struggle for the last grass).

In this atmosphere, moving cattle off the San Francisco seemed an impossible - even a life-threatening - undertaking. But Suckling, Galvin and Schulke didn't forget their pledge to drive cattle from the San Francisco's banks. In the early 1990s, their Greater Gila Biodiversity Project (the Center for Biological Diversity's predecessor) started what would become a chain of lawsuits: first, to list the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Mexican spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act; then, to protect the habitat of the threatened spikedace and loach minnow; and finally, working with Forest Guardians, to protect these species by removing cattle from the upper Gila watershed.

Peculiar conditions

Forest Service officials have long acknowledged that cattle grazing can damage riparian areas. Aldo Leopold, who was a ranger for the Gila National Forest and helped establish the Gila Wilderness, wrote in 1923: "The lesson is that under our peculiar Southwestern conditions, any grazing at all, no matter how moderate, is liable to overgraze and ruin watercourses."

Grazing in the Gila is one of the agency's toughest management challenges, particularly in riparian, or streamside, areas, says Russ Lafayette, the Forest Service's chief national riparian strategist. The mild climate of Arizona and New Mexico encourages long seasons of grazing, he says; many areas haven't had any rest for a long time.

"When we see a riparian area that is in bad shape, we sort of think that is normal, because we've not seen it in good shape," he says.

For decades, says Lafayette, the agency avoided what he calls the "extreme strategy" of removing cattle. Instead, it tried to keep cattle out of riparian pastures during the growing season. But by the middle 1990s, some Forest Service officials realized that the imperiled fish and bird species in Arizona and New Mexico needed more - and speedier - relief. Five mid-level officials in the Southwest resigned or took early retirement in the mid-'90s, partly because they felt that their concerns weren't being heard (HCN, 3/30/98: A bare-knuckled trio goes after the Forest Service).

In 1997, a Forest Service report found that 85 percent of 119 riparian monitoring points on the Gila National Forest rated "unsatisfactory." The Forest Service study was backed by others from The Nature Conservancy and a team of independent scientists, which focused on the unusually large number of imperiled species in the Southwest. The Gila River basin plays host to 22 federally listed species, 11 of them endangered and threatened fish species, along with 47 species that are candidates for federal listing.

These studies gave weight to the environmentalists' court challenges, especially the culminating 1997 suit, which argued that the Forest Service had failed to consider the effects of grazing on seven imperiled species, including the Southwestern willow flycatcher, the Mexican spotted owl, and the spikedace and loach minnows. The Forest Service had no choice but to address the issue, Lafayette says.

The environmentalists say they, too, had no choice but to file their lawsuits.

"Absent litigation, I have no doubt they would have laughed us out of the room," says John Horning of Forest Guardians. "The ranchers weren't willing to concede anything. The livestock industry is in massive denial about ecological damage they've caused. I think they felt at the time, and many still feel, that 'we've got a stranglehold on the agency and we've got politicians at our beckoning at the state, local and federal level. So why do we need to deal?' "

But ranchers along the San Francisco say they didn't feel powerful. They viewed the 1998 agreement as a "backroom deal" between the Forest Service and the environmentalists, designed to throw hundreds of ranchers off the land. Protecting habitat for the spikedace and loach minnows, they claimed, would also destroy the trout-fishing industry and close the area's rivers to hunting and picnicking. Fencing the rivers to protect the flycatcher from cows was silly, they said, because elk would break through the fences.

Rancher McKeen says the Forest Service not only failed to defend its grazing plan in court, but also cut ranchers out of the negotiated agreement with the environmentalists. Steve Libby, the Gila National Forest's staff officer for range and wildlife, disagrees. The ranchers could have participated, he says, but their attorneys refused. "They wanted their day in court."

Fencing the river

On Libby's Silver City office wall, a map crowded with gray blotches shows how times have changed in the forest: The blotches represent the 26 out of 140 Gila allotments that are now cattle-free. The number of cattle actually running on the forest has dropped from about 29,000 in 1990 to 23,000 in 1999, a figure that has held fairly steady over the past two years.

"We will continue to defend the principle of good, sound multiple use," Libby says. "But it's not our position to defend the livestock industry."

Fences started going up along the San Francisco and other rivers within a few months after the 1998 settlement. They were finished by 1999, boosted by a $400,000 appropriation secured by New Mexico's congressional delegation. Water gaps at various points along the fences allowed cattle through for a drink, while the rest of the river was closed off.

But the fencing has pleased nobody. The Forest Service's Chuck Oliver recalls it was "one of the worst things that could happen to ranchers," with elk vaulting over the top of the wire and errant cattle breaking through fence holes. "It would have worked if you had had a herder out there all the time on the river bottom," he says, "but you can't do that."

Environmentalists were not much happier, since the agency had posted fences right along river bottoms. That left the rest of the riparian areas open to grazing, and, just as critics predicted, made fences easy targets for floods. Every time, someone had to go out and rebuild. For a while, Forest Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity flew planes up and downriver hunting for stray cows and bulls, which had broken through fences to trespass on the river. Some environmentalists said the gap fencing gave cattle too much river access and was even more prone to flood damage than the mainstem riparian fencing.

"The lawsuit required us to respond quickly," Libby says. "We probably didn't have the luxury of time to work with permittees and analyze the best possible places."

Officially, the 1998 settlement agreement to get cattle off the San Francisco and other Southwest rivers expired in fall 1999, when the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service finished the required endangered species studies. But because the studies urged that the livestock exclusion continue, nothing has changed. The system of fences remains largely unchanged, with 10 water gaps in place, ranging from 20 feet to 200 feet wide. Cattle still occasionally slip through the fences into the river, but the problem of trespass has diminished since the Forest Service increased its monitoring efforts.

For many Catron ranchers, particularly those with no other livelihood, the economic impact of the 1998 agreement has been swift. Five Catron ranchers have since voluntarily pulled their cattle entirely off their allotments.

"It just broke me. This will break anyone," says Glen McCarty, who pulled 175 cattle from the river northwest of Reserve. "I'm having to sell cattle at one-fifth the normal price. How would you like to work at one-fifth of your income?"

Eddie Atwood says the 1998 agreement "just about wiped out all of our cattle business," forcing him to cut his herd by about 50 percent from 83 head. "When it doesn't rain, and there's not enough snow in the wintertime, we just run out of water."

David Kelly, the fourth in a line of family ranchers using the Kelly allotment, lives in a wood frame house just 200 yards from the river. He fears the environmentalists will eventually drive everyone off the land. "You're leading to the deterioration of the American family so these people (the environmentalists) can have a playground," he says. "And it won't be long before they don't even want that. They'll want no humans on the property."

Two humans who frequently inhabited the banks of the San Francisco following the agreement were activist Kelly Cranston and Helen Wilson, who worked summers as a Forest Service biologist. Making inspections every two weeks on the river near Glenwood, Wilson started noticing a different kind of impact from the cattle exclusions. She saw "lots and lots" of deep green grasses rising almost knee-high. She saw skinny willows and cottonwoods, six to eight feet tall, as well as cattails, reeds, sedges and bulrush.

When a late summer flood raged in 1998, they noticed that it didn't rip at the newly bolstered banks as it used to. Instead, Wilson says, the water, slowed by grass and small shrubs, dumped soil on the banks. The only traces of the flash flood were sticks stranded several feet up in small trees, and several new, eight-foot-deep swimming holes scoured out of the river bottom. The soil was more fertile; more grass would grow.

Wilson's observations matched an April 1999 study of a nearby, privately owned, half-mile stretch of the San Francisco that had been fenced from cattle since 1991. That same 1998 flood, carrying 3,200 cubic-feet per second of water, had trapped sediment in the river, with six inches to one foot of soil building up along the channel. Overall, Silver City hydrologist Nancy Gordon's report said, the riparian vegetation withstood the flood. Since then, the recovery of cottonwoods, willows and other riparian vegetation, she wrote, has been "spectacular."

Biological ambiguity

But better soils and more vegetation haven't yet translated into the recovery of imperiled wildlife. That's because, according to scientists, there are innumerable variables involved with species recovery, of which cattle grazing is only one.

So far, according to sporadic surveys, the numbers of willow flycatchers and minnows haven't increased. Wilson and Cranston say they have seen rapid increases in the population of Chiricahua leopard frogs, which have been proposed for federal listing. Biologists from the University of Arizona and Western New Mexico in Silver City caution that it's not unusual for leopard frog populations to fluctuate annually. Still, if the frogs persist in large numbers for five years, "I'd say it looks like there may be recovery from cattle grazing," says Phil Rosen, a University of Arizona herpetologist.

The number of flycatchers may also increase soon, if the experience of other areas holds true. Downstream of the Gila Forest, on an eight-mile stretch of the Gila River managed by the Bureau of Land Management, flycatchers, which had numbered only seven pairs in 1995, have increased 44, 36 and 78 in the past three years.

Besides bringing a rapid growth in cottonwoods and willows, the cattle removal has meant the river attracts far fewer cowbirds to invade and lay eggs in flycatcher nests, says Bill Merhege, a BLM wildlife program leader in Las Cruces, N.M. The cowbird, Merhege explains, is a fringe species particularly drawn to edges of riverine habitat and irrigated dairy pastures (HCN, 9/15/97: Feds take on a sneaky species).

"We see other birds get hit by cowbirds at the edges of patches, but they don't go inside the patches deep," Merhege said. "If you don't have cows and (you have) good habitat, you won't have a problem."

The picture isn't as promising for fish. On the Upper Verde River near Prescott, Ariz., spikedace and other native fish counts have plunged since cattle were removed by the Forest Service in the mid-1990s. The main reason is a lack of flooding, which has more to do with weather patterns than cattle. Spikedace like riffles and runs and glides, which are created and enhanced by floods. "Flooding seems to rejuvenate the system. It's kind of like turning over your garden in the spring," says Forest Service fisheries biologist Jerry Stefferud.

Over the same period, exotic fish such as red shiner and smallmouth bass proliferated there, both of which can take a toll on natives. Forest Service biologists say there's not enough information yet to blame those increases on the removal of cattle.

While the absence of cows does not guarantee success for imperiled wildlife, some ranchers and environmentalists claim cows can live in harmony with those same species. This case is made most strongly at the U Bar Ranch along the Gila River near the town of Cliff.

Willow flycatcher counts there skyrocketed from barely 60 pairs in 1994 to more than 200 in 1999, before dropping to 135 this year. It's the largest single population of the endangered bird in the country. This increase occurred while 400 to 500 cattle wintergrazed on about half the privately owned U Bar, says Scott Stoleson, a Forest Service wildlife biologist in Albuquerque.

His studies have shown that more birds inhabit grazed areas than ungrazed areas of the ranch. The birds are particularly drawn to huge, aging box elders, which have been rejuvenated in recent years after ranch owner David Ogilvie resumed sending water to long-dormant irrigation ditches where many of the trees stand.

But Stoleson says that he's not sure how easily the U Bar's success can be duplicated elsewhere. Box elders usually occur at elevations of 3,500 feet and up, higher than most flycatchers live. The U Bar is in a broad floodplain, while many other Southwestern creeks and rivers lie in narrow canyons. All he can say is, "Intelligent management, or managing adaptively to what the conditions are, makes a big difference."

Forest Guardians' Horning is openly skeptical of the U Bar enthusiasts. "They say that we have 130 flycatchers in this area, therefore cows and flycatchers are compatible. What they don't say is that if they didn't have cows there, they might have 300 to 400 flycatchers," he says.

But the Quivira Coalition, a Santa Fe group that works with ranchers to improve their management, also points to recovering creeks on rancher Jim Williams' private land near Quemado and on rancher Jim Winder's Forest Service and BLM allotments near Hatch, both in New Mexico. In both cases, the ranchers run cows along the creeks only in the winter, when they can do less damage to dormant vegetation. Winder puts them into riparian areas for a week at a time during growing seasons. And in both cases, the ranchers say they've seen far more young cottonwoods and willows and grasses than a few years ago.

"My riparian areas, I take 10 times more forage off them than in the past because there is 100 times more forage than in the past," says Winder, who says he switched to mainly dormant-season riparian grazing in 1985.

Forest Service biologist Stefferud says no one has adequately studied whether riparian areas can thrive during part-year grazing. Sections of two Arizona streams failed to recover under winter grazing: the Verde River near Childs, south of Prescott, and Redrock Canyon near Patagonia, according to separate Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service letters and reports.

And one documented success story may have been temporary: In 1988, the journal Rangelands, published by the Society for Range Management, reported a dramatic increase in cottonwoods after ranchers switched to winter grazing on a 7,000-acre riparian pasture near Globe, Ariz. But the '80s turned out to be a wet decade, and some riparian areas got "wiped out" during the drier 1990s, although a neighboring grazing riparian area is doing fine, said Larry Widner, the Globe district ranger.

"What's interesting about it is, the more you learn, the more ignorant we realize we are," Widner says. "You can have the same management in different parts of the same country, and some creeks recover, but others not at all."

Too hot to handle

The best hope for Catron County ranchers is the Black Bob allotment 10 miles northwest of Reserve. There, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have been quietly stitching together a plan to resume winter-only riparian grazing on the San Francisco. Agency leaders say it's a demonstration project that would use five miles of river for three to 10 years. The allotment itself spans 26,000 acres of mesa tops, flatlands, gentle-sloped benches and ridges and rugged cliffs. Here, the river slices north-south through reddish, tan and mud-colored bluffs up to 150 feet high.

Nancy Kaufman and Eleanor Towns, the regional directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service, respectively, paid a joint visit to the Black Bob in 1998 to endorse the winter grazing plan. Some in the Forest Service felt the Black Bob could make a good test case because photographs show that its conditions had improved dramatically during five years of winter riparian grazing.

But not all agency staffers are behind the Black Bob proposal. In December 2000, Service biologists presented a report which acknowledged that the Black Bob was stocked "at or above capacity," and that grazing had left its watershed "more than moderately degraded." Some environmentalists say that's reason enough to nix the plan. In addition, the Center for Biological Diversity's Martin Taylor says the permittees' track record - over 18 cases of cattle trespass and other permit violations in two states over three years - should disqualify him for this pilot project.

For a while, it seemed this criticism would derail the project, but last May, under direct orders from regional forester Towns, the agency started cranking up the Black Bob plan again, with a formal approval date not yet known.

If the plan doesn't go through, "In one year, we'll be out of here," says Glen McCarty, whose family has ranched on or near the Black Bob since 1884. McCarty and his wife, Kathleen, debate whether it would be the couple or their sons who would eventually subdivide and sell the family's base property. "That little minnow is more important than our cows, more important than us," Kathleen McCarty says.

In the meantime, Forest Service officials see no chance that cattle will return anywhere else along the rivers soon. Environmentalists say they will defend the current restrictions, even as they launch new legal offensives. One such suit from Forest Guardians argues that the Forest Service has failed to enforce its standards for how much grass and shrubs the cattle should eat on the uplands. It seeks to get cattle taken off higher ground while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies the grazing's effects on the Mexican spotted owl and other species.

Ranchers shouldn't expect any relief from the business-friendly Bush administration. Forest Service biologist Paul Boucher says, "The laws don't change, the Endangered Species Act is the same and it's been off the table in Congress since the early 1990s. It's too hot to handle by either party."

If that prediction holds, the entire San Francisco someday could resemble the Lower Box, a steep-walled canyon a few miles south of Glenwood and west of the San Francisco Hot Springs, a popular tourist attraction. There, nature has controlled the landscape since the Forest Service kicked cattle off in 1989. Willows tower up to 35 feet high and are packed so densely on islands and the streambanks that hikers can barely squeeze through. The sight amounts to a 150-year time warp, taking visitors back to a period when cattle were more rare than a willow flycatcher.

Tony Davis writes for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, and has covered grazing in the Gila River watershed for eight years. Michael P. Berman works out of San Lorenzo, New Mexico.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- One rancher stands in defiance...

- ...while another quietly moves ahead


  • Gila National Forest, 505/388-8201;
  • Forest Guardians, 505/988-9126;
  • New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association at 505/247-0584;
  • The Center for Biological Diversity, 520/623-5252;
  • Arizona Cattle Growers' Association, 602/267-1129.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tony Davis

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