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Shar Poirer. Sierra Vista Herald Tribune.

BISBEE — On Aug. 1, the U.S. District Court of Arizona released an agreement between environmentalists and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) concerning the renewal of four grazing leases and trespassing cattle within the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

For years, cattle incursions to the San Pedro River have been documented with photos and GPS coordinates showing the impact of cattle to the river within the protected San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA). Hoof tracks and feces can be found in and around the river and, in one location are alleged to have harmed the protected Huachuca water umbel.

Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter all joined together represented by to hold the BLM accountable.

The U.S. District Court of Arizona spelled out the agreement reached between plaintiffs and defendants Scott Feldhausen, BLM Gila district manager, Raymond Suazo, BLM Arizona State Director, Mark Lamb, Acting Arizona Field Supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Martha Williams, FWS Director.

A suit was filed in 2020 which pointed out the grazing problems already occurring along the San Pedro river in response to the BLM’s new resource management plan (RMP). There were four previously approved leases to cattle ranchers — Babocomari, Brunckow Hill, Three Brothers and Lucky Hills — through the SPRNCA allotment lease planning process. The BLM decided in the RMP, they would continue the existing leases as well as look to other possible areas to open up to grazing.

The plaintiffs stated the BLM’s RMP violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act (AICA).

They also alleged FWS violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it adopted “an insufficient Biological Opinion in 2014, by failing to ensure against jeopardy of certain listed species within SPRNCA and by failing to properly complete consultation on the effects of the RMP.”

The parties together explored options to resolv

e this litigation and determined the BLM will address the violations.

According to the agreement, the BLM will ensure decisions will be consistent with AICA’s command to “manage the SPRNCA in a manner that conserves, protects, and enhances it and the aquatic, wildlife, archeological, paleontological, scientific, cultural, educational and recreational resources to further the primary purposes for which the SPRNCA was established.”

The BLM must examine the impacts of the proposed action to the lease planning process on the protected Huachuca water umbel, southwestern willow flycatcher, desert pupfish, Gila topminnow, northern Mexican gartersnake, yellow–billed cuckoo and Arizona eryngo, including proposed and designated critical habitat, according to the agreement.

In evaluating the process, BLM agreed to consider a “no grazing alternative that would prohibit livestock grazing on BLM–managed lands in the SPRNCA.” The BLM has seven months to comply to address the grazing issue and produce another biological opinion. If a contested issue arises, the parties agreed to add another month to the deadline.

The agreement reached was a hard fought battle against the continuous encroachments of cattle to protect the SPRNCA. When the SPRNCA was established in 1988, the BLM agreed livestock grazing had a significant negative impact on the river, plants and wildlife.

Todd Tucci, senior attorney for Advocates for the West who represented the groups, stated since that time, the four grazing allotments were continually permitted in the SPRNCA without any environmental analysis.

“In 1988 Congress required the BLM to manage the SPRNCA to 'conserve, protect and enhance' the conservation values of the area,” noted Tucci in a press release. “Since that time, the BLM has manufactured every excuse to justify continued grazing within this national treasure. We are pleased the BLM has finally agreed to take a hard look at the impacts of grazing within the San Pedro."

In the past, Feldhausen has said publicly during meetings with the community on the new RMP, he was reluctant to approach ranchers about trespassing cattle due to a 2014 incident that pitted the BLM against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters as the 21–year legal dispute over unpaid grazing fees erupted into an armed standoff. He did not want the same thing to happen in Cochise County.

Feldhausen also said at the time, new fencing and repairs of existing fencing could help the problem and prevent stray bovines from reaching the river. The work has not been completed.

“No one visits the SPRNCA to see cow pies, trampled vegetation, muddy waters and ruined wildlife habitats,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project. “The Bureau needs to reconsider its priorities and truly ‘conserve, protect, and enhance’ the area, as it is directed to do by law. Continued livestock use is incompatible with that direction.”

“While this settlement won't end BLM employees' fear’ of local rancher violence, it will hopefully serve as the beginning of the end of permitted graz

ing on the San Pedro River," said Center for Biological Diversity co–founder and board member Robin Silver. "There is no place for riparian cow grazing in the desert Southwest, especially along the San Pedro where the Riparian National Conservation Area was created to protect riparian values."

Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter director Sandy Bahr stated, “The SPRNCA was established to protect the ecological values of this amazing place and to ensure that the diversity of plants and animals thrive. Our rivers and riparian areas are too precious and rare to be sacrificed to the desires of the livestock industry. This settlement helps to put the Bureau of Land Management on track for doing what it is mandated to do to protect the SPRNCA.”

Cyndi Tuell, director of Western Watersheds Project’s Arizona and New Mexico, noted she looks forward to a time when she can visit the SPRNCA and enjoy cleaner water and more abundant vegetation and wildlife and fewer cattle.

“Now that the agency has this new opportunity to actually protect this amazing riparian treasure, I am hopeful that the wildlife and native plants will be given the chance to recover and expand into areas now dominated by livestock,” she stated. “I look forward to seeing more fish, more rare plants like the Huachuca water umbel, and knowing the cultural resources are fully protected.”

June Lowry, BLM public affairs specialist, said in response to questions, “The BLM will be implementing all the terms of the settlement as staffing and funding allow. As for the water umbel, that is separate pending litigation, so we cannot comment on that at this time.”


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