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Environmental groups sue to stop cattle grazing in San Pedro River preserve

This is a great article by Tony Davis of the Arizona Daily Star. It's shown below in its entirety along with a link to article in today's paper. Having worked on the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) Resource Management Plan (RMP) for 2.5 years this lawsuit is no surprise. Grazing in the SPRNCA was, in my opinion, the single most contentious issue. Followed closely by, again in my opinion, off highway vehicle access. As mentioned in the article, when the additional 7,990 acres was acquired grazing was already ongoing and it was to be reevaluated when the permit expired in 1996. BLM failed to do any reevaluated and grazing was allowed to continue. This became a very sore subject between local ranchers and the environmentalist. I have a feeling the Courts will find in BLM's favor, simply because I don't think the plaintiffs will be able to show that NEPA, FLPMA, or the enabling legislation were violated.

Environmentalists are suing the federal government to try to force removal of cattle from the San Pedro River’s protected conservation area east of Sierra Vista.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson on Tuesday, seeks to overturn a 2019 management plan. That plan allows grazing to continue on 12.5 percent of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area’s 55,990 acres, where it has occurred for 30 years.

The 2019 plan from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management also allows introduction of what the bureau calls “targeted” grazing into the rest of the conservation area, which has been officially closed to cattle since the conservation area’s creation in 1988, says the lawsuit.

In the suit, four environmental groups say the plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the 1988 Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act, which created the conservation area that covers more than 40 miles of the river.

“We’re hoping to keep cows out of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. The BLM has one job: to conserve, protect and enhance this area. They’ve failed to do it. So we’re suing them,” said Cyndi Tuell, Arizona-New Mexico director of the Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups filing suit.

Also suing are the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Advocates for the West, a nonprofit environmental law firm based in Boise, Idaho.

The Bureau of Land Management responded in a statement: “BLM is reviewing the litigation and at this time we are not commenting on ongoing litigation.”

The lawsuit culminates years of intense debate among federal officials, environmentalists, ranchers and scientists over the environmental impacts of grazing along the San Pedro, the Southwest’s last free-flowing desert river.

The conservation area “contains four of the rarest habitat types in the American Southwest, cottonwood/willow forests, marshlands, grasslands, and mesquite bosques, and provides habitat for approximately 350 birds, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 80 species of mammals, making this area one of the richest assemblages of land mammal species in the entire world,” the lawsuit says.

When the conservation area was created through a federal-private land exchange in 1988, the BLM ordered removal of cattle from all land then inside the area’s boundaries. As for the remaining 7,990 acres it had obtained in a state-federal land exchange, BLM allowed cattle to remain through the end of its lease terms in 1996, but the cattle weren’t removed afterward, the lawsuit says.

The suit alleges that BLM continues to allow that grazing “despite mounting evidence that cattle degrade ecological conditions and that current management is insufficiently protective of riparian and conservation resources.”

Regarding the rest of the conservation area, federal officials at one time celebrated the removal of cattle there as an environmental success story.

They and outside scientists pointed to the widespread growth of young cottonwood, willow and mesquite tree seedlings in areas now lacking cows to chomp on vegetation.

In recent years, however, BLM has talked favorably of smaller-scale reintroduction of grazing there as a management tool. Ranchers have joined that push, but in March 2018 a group of 21 scientists, most in Arizona, signed a letter asking that cattle not be allowed in the conservation area.

Particularly at issue in this lawsuit is what the bureau calls targeted grazing, which it approved for the first time in the conservation area in last year’s new management plan.

It calls for what BLM says would be selective, limited grazing as a way to control invasive and otherwise undesirable vegetation growth that competes with native trees and shrubs.

In its final environmental impact statement on the 2019 plan, the bureau said that any impacts to soil resources, water quality and quantity, vegetation and other natural resources “would be localized and occur on a smaller scale than with livestock grazing generally.”

“Additionally, targeted grazing would be limited in duration, only used for discrete periods of time and ending after selected vegetation types are successfully removed based on ecological site and treatment objectives,” the bureau said. “As a result, there would be less potential for livestock to cause permanent impacts on soil resources.”

The lawsuit, however, accuses BLM of using only one “thinly sourced” paragraph to describe targeted grazing’s impacts on each of a wide array of resources.

BLM has provided no substantive information on “where, when and/or for how long BLM will allow targeted grazing,” the lawsuit says.

The environmental impact statement “is equally devoid of information on what class of livestock will be used, how many livestock will be allowed to graze, who is authorized to graze, whether these livestock will have access to the important riparian and habitat resources within the San Pedro Riparian NCA, and how BLM will ensure that adverse effects do not flow from this increased use,” the lawsuit says.

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