Fossil Creek can handle the return of grass-munching, dirt-stomping cattle, says the U.S. Forest Service.
No way, says the Centers for Biological Diversity, citing a study showing the condition of the vegetation is declining in 87 percent of test plots. About 56 percent of the range is now in “impaired” or “unsatisfactory” condition.
Who did the study?
The Coconino National Forest, which took cattle off the Fossil Creek watershed at the height of the drought and now wants to issue permits to return nearly 500 cows to a 42,000-acre tract southeast of Camp Verde.
Citing the figures in the federal government’s own environment assessment of grazing along Fossil Creek, the Centers for Biological Diversity has filed an administrative appeal to block issuance of the grazing permits.
The Forest Service has until later this month to file an official response.
The proposed action comes four years after Arizona Public Service shut down a historic hydro-electric power generating plant and returned the spring-fed flow of Fossil Creek to the river bed.
The revived creek, rich in travertine, wildlife and endangered native fish, has become one of the few pristine creeks in the state.
Last March, Congress declared Fossil Creek a “wild and scenic river,” a distinction it now shares in Arizona with only one stretch of the Verde River near where Fossil Creek merges with it.
“The Forest Service’s own data show that livestock grazing will harm Fossil Creek and even wipe out some endangered wildlife in the area,” said Doug Lininger, an ecologist for the center based in Flagstaff. “The agency is attempting to revive an ancient industry at the expense of one of Arizona’s crown jewels.”
Some 90 percent of the watershed of the Verde River remains open to grazing, although the Forest Service withheld some leases and significantly reduced the number of cattle allowed on most others as a result of the impact of the ongoing drought.
The Forest Service ordered the removal of cows from the 42,000-acre Fossil Creek allotment in 2002, but the study shows little recovery of the grasses and range in the past seven years. This single grazing allotment covers 22 percent of the drainage of the Fossil Creek/ Lower Verde watershed.
The Forest Service had proposed letting the lease-holder return cattle to the range, but included a variety of conditions. The proposed lease would provide for month-to-month changes in management and the number of cattle allowed, depending on the condition of the range.
Cattle are the chief reason erosion in that watershed remains 35 to 50 percent above normal, according to the Forest Service’s own analysis. Cattle account for 30 times as much erosion of sediment into the creek as all the roads in the area combined, the report concluded.
Erosion and the poor condition of the soils can affect a host of species, including the endangered loach minnow and spikedace. Bank trampling and the decline of springs due to excessive erosion can also harm the endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog, according to the administrative appeal.
Other agencies have also raised questions about the impact of the relatively open-ended agreement proposed in the new grazing lease.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department comment on the study concluded “The Forest (Service) has written a proposed action that would be very difficult to violate, but which gives no assurance of good management. We understand the value of adaptive management, but this degree of latitude is an abrogation of responsible management.”
In a strange bureaucratic Catch 22, the Forest Service rejected the option of not letting cattle back onto the range because the range was deteriorating, even without cows present.
“Continuation of current management is not expected to improve soil condition, vegetative condition or riparian and wildlife habitat conditions. As a result, a current management alternative would not meet the purpose and need of the project.”
The environmental assessment focused on finding ways to minimize the impact of the returning cattle on the watershed, with the goal of returning as much of the range as possible to “satisfactory” condition, which is measured by the percentage of ground cover.
The report highlighted the need to improve the condition of some three miles of stream, as a result of the impact of bank trampling, grazing pressure and the reduced number of streamside plants.