Judge Blocks Grazing Above Fossil Creek

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A federal judge has at least temporarily blocked a Forest Service plan to allow renewed cattle grazing on 42,000 acres in the watershed of Fossil Creek.

U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashimi concluded the Forest Service had ignored its own rules in allowing renewed grazing above one of the state’s few stretches of “wild and scenic” river and a bastion for many endangered species.

The judge said the Forest Service acted in an “arbitrary” manner in allowing grazing even though studies showed that 96 percent of range had soil conditions that were unsatisfactory, impaired or unstable. Moreover, 60 to 87 percent of the range is continuing to deteriorate even without grazing.

In addition, the judge concluded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately consider how renewed grazing will affect the endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog.

The Forest Service allowed lease holder J.P. Morgan-Chase & Co. to reintroduce 290 cows to the historic Ward Ranch of Rimrock in September of 2009. The Center for Biological Diversity in Flagstaff then sued to get the cattle removed.

The federal agency declined comment on the judge’s ruling. However, a fact sheet prepared by the Coconino National Forest before the judge’s ruling said the range had been grazed for 125 years, but in 2008 the Forest Service reduced the maximum number of cattle allowed by 38 percent.

Moreover, new fencing prevents any cattle from actually reaching Fossil Creek.

Taylor McKinnon, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “Fossil Creek is one of the Southwest’s most important river reaches. The court’s ruling is a victory for this beautiful creek, its diverse array of native species and the public investments that have been made to recover them. In authorizing this grazing plan, the feds gave Fossil Creek and its endangered species short shrift in favor of J.P. Morgan-Chase. We’re glad the court is demanding a course correction.”

Fossil Creek has emerged as a refuge for endangered riparian species in the five years since the decommissioning of a historic hydropower plant returned the flow of a travertine-rich spring to the streambed. The Fish and Wildlife Service removed non-native species and reintroduced a complex of threatened and endangered native fish — including headwater and roundtail chub, sonoran suckers and others.

Biologists say the Chiricahua Leopard Frog has not yet established itself in the creek, but does inhabit some of its tributaries. Ironically, the Arizona Game and Fish Department is attempting to reintroduce the Chiricahua Leopard Frog along other Rim Country creeks with the help of ranchers who have let biologists put the endangered frogs in stock tanks.

The Coconino Forest fact sheet said the permit holder has cooperated in efforts to reintroduce the leopard frog.

In 2006, biologists could find only five leopard frogs in a single stock tank. The rancher has cooperated with state and federal biologists to move frogs to three other tanks, where a recent census counted 400 frogs.

The grazing allotment in question covers a vast swath of hillsides in the Coconino National Forest on the west side of the creek that ultimately drains into Fossil Creek, which has become popular with hikers and swimmers because of its gush of crystal clear, turquoise-tinted water.

The federal judge criticized both a Fish and Wildlife Service “biological opinion” and a U.S. Forest Service “environmental assessment” of the grazing lease.

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