The Forest Service’s decision to let some 300 cattle graze near Fossil Creek violates the law and will harm the Chiricahua Leopard Frog and other endangered species, according to a lawsuit filed by the Centers for Biological Diversity.
The alarming deterioration of the condition of the watershed had prompted the Forest Service to suspend grazing permits for more than 500 cattle several years ago, but after a study the Forest Service renewed the lease to a unit of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
“Even the Forest Service’s own wildlife specialists concluded this is more than double (the number of cattle) the range can support,” said Jay Lininger, with the Centers for Biological Diversity. “Despite all the work that’s gone into restoring flows, this will wipe out the soil, change the hydrology and harm endangered species.”
Spokesman for the Coconino National Forest declined to comment, due to the pending lawsuit and referred all questions to the information in the Environmental Assessment posted on its Web site.
That study concluded that more than 56 percent of the rangeland remained in seriously degraded condition and that not allowing grazing would improve the riparian area.
Nonetheless, the Forest Service decided to renew the grazing lease, with requirements that the cattle be moved from pasture to pasture on the 42,000-acre parcel to minimize impacts on the creek.
Since the abandonment of a century-old hydroelectric plant about five years ago, the return of water to the creek has not only made it a recreational mecca, but also created one of the best native fish refuges in the southwest.
The Arizona Department of Game and Fish has created a catch-and-release fishery for Verde Trout and Headwater Chub, two native fish driven nearly to extinction elsewhere in their range.
The spring-fed, travertine rich waters of the creek have created a 15-mile long string of deep, blue-green, crystal clear pools that have drawn such heavy use that the Forest Service has banned camping and fires along the creek. The deep pools now swarm with native fish, after the U.S.. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Department of Fish and Game trapped the natives, poisoned the non-natives and restored the native fish with the renewed flows.
In responding to the Forest Service grazing plan, the Arizona Department of Fish and Game suggested letting about half as many cows on the grazing allotment as the Forest Service eventually permitted.
The Environmental Assessment concluded that the ranch managers working for the bank that owns the allotment could protect streamside vegetation and minimize erosion down the tributaries to the crystal-clear creek with intensive management, including fencing that would allow cowhands to constantly shift the cattle from one area to another, giving grass time to recover and keeping the cows out of the riparian areas during the spring when the riparian plants put on much of their growth.
The plan called for ongoing monitoring to make sure returning cattle to the watershed draining into Fossil Creek wouldn’t cause more damage.
However, the biologists who wrote the environmental assessment also concluded that not allowing cattle back onto the lease at all would boost the grass and riparian area even more.
The allotment has been grazed only fitfully for the past decade, due to the effects of a long, severe drought. It includes some 149 miles of streamfront, including Fossil Creek and its tributaries. Despite that long rest, the environmental assessment concluded that soil conditions were “impaired” across 49 percent of the range and “unsatisfactory” on an additional 7 percent. The biologists set up sample plots throughout the range and after several years of monitoring concluded that conditions had declined on 60 percent of the plots and were on a “downward trend” on 87 percent of the plots – even without grazing.
Lininger said up updated assessment showed that only 4 percent of the range is currently in “satisfactory” condition.
The environmental assessment showed that currently erosion is 35 percent higher than normal. That means each 2.5 acres on the allotment loses 8 tons of soil annually.
The report also documented a decline in streamside vegetation and a decline in conditions for several endangered species. That includes the Chiricahua Leopard Frog listed as threatened in 2002 after disappearing from 80 percent of its former range.
“It’s our position that livestock grazing had devastated the soil in Fossil Creek and that the place needs an extended rest,” said Lininger. “A multi-national finance firm has no business exceeding range capacity at the risk of wiping out a threatened frog there.”
The bank foreclosed on the historic Rim Rock ranch several years ago and now seeks to restart the ranching operation.
The Forest Service’s environmental assessment concluded that without letting cattle back onto the lease, the rancher operators won’t upgrade water supplies and fencing. Some Chiricahua Leopard Frog populations have been established in stock tanks, often with water supplied from windmills.
The Forest Service plan set various goals for the condition of the grass and vegetation, noting that range managers would have to pull cattle off the range if it continued to deteriorate.
The plan called for not letting the cattle eat more than 50 percent of the grass and 20 percent of the riparian plants. The rancher would also have to build additional fencing to give the cattle access to the stream in only a few places.
The Forest Service plan said the lease would be regulated through “adaptive management,” which controls grazing based on the conditions of the grass and brush rather than just the numbers of cows. Such a system requires constant adjustments as conditions change.
However, critics say the Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to provide adequate monitoring of range conditions, especially because conditions were deteriorating due to the drought even with no cattle on the range at all.
Lininger said that the Forest Service needs to prepare a formal recovery plan for all the endangered species in the watershed before even considering opening the gate to renewed grazing.
“Some of these pastures go right up to the creek – and at three distinct points the cattle will have direct access to the creek,” said Lininger.
He said the Forest Service plan set no limits to the number of leopard frogs the cattle might kill or displace.
“Federal biologists are ignoring the needs of the Chiricahua Leopard Frog and letting cattle grazing drive it to extinction,” said Lininger. “Fossil Creek is a resurrected river, but livestock grazing sets back public investment in restoration and benefits a massive bank with no stake in the local economy.”