A federal judge has approved a settlement to help keep cattle from damaging the Verde River and its tributaries — including the East Verde.

The ruling caps a 20-year effort by the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society to protect rare and endangered species from the impact of cattle grazing on riparian areas.

These streamside habitats play a key role at some phase of the life cycles of an estimated 90% of Arizona’s wildlife. However, studies suggest that 95% of those systems have been degraded or destroyed due to a century of dam building, water diversions and groundwater pumping.

One recent study found a greater density and diversity of nesting birds on the Verde River than any other place in North America. The Verde and its tributaries, including the East Verde and Fossil Creek, are also a critical migratory pathway for songbirds.

In the settlement, the Forest Service agreed to put up more fencing to keep cattle out of these riparian areas — especially during the spring when plants like cottonwoods and willows are greening out — making them like candy to cattle. Cattle grazing on streams also changes water temperature, destroys overhanging banks and may contaminate streams with bacteria and parasites harmful to humans.

“Keeping cattle from trampling these fragile wetlands will give rare plants and animals a fighting chance at survival,” said Robin Silver, a cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s unfortunate that it took decades and legal action for the agencies to do what they promised, but the agreement will help restore this beautiful river and its tributaries. Arizonans know the Verde is a special place and they want it to be protected. There’s no room for cattle here.”

The agreement includes the East Verde River, where stray cattle from nearby grazing allotments regularly spend months moving up and down the stream to graze. The Forest Service typically responds to complaints from areas like East Verde Park by saying the stream runs through “open range.” This means the property owner is responsible for fencing out cattle — rather than the rancher being responsible for keeping the cattle within the boundaries of the allotment of public lands on which almost all western cattle operations depend.

Advocates for ranchers greeted word of the agreement with frustration — and skepticism, according to a report by the Associated Press.

“At the end of the day, the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have a good track record,” said Patrick Bray, executive vice president at the Arizona Farm and Ranch Group, which represents many cattle ranchers. “It’s going to take maintaining fence, it’s going to take working with permittees and others to make sure that you meet it.”

Bray and others say the federal government is being hamstrung by environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, and that many of the cows that are causing damage are unbranded, wild cattle that no one owns, according to the AP report.

Republican Rep. David Cook, a rancher from Globe, told the Associated Press that wild cattle have done most of the damage. He described a merry-go-round where the federal government agrees to keep cattle out of sensitive areas to settle a lawsuit, but no cattlemen are allowed to argue their side of the debate in court and little is done. Then years later another lawsuit ends in a settlement.

“So now they’re wrong again, right?” he said of the Forest Service.

The agreement to protect the Verde River comes in the wake of a similar promise by the Forest Service to monitor and exclude cattle from vulnerable streams in the White Mountains and New Mexico on the upper Gila River watershed.

Numerous endangered species rely on the Verde River — and many also move up into tributaries like the East Verde and Fossil Creek. This includes willow flycatchers, yellow-billed cuckoos, Gila chub, loach minnow, spikedace, Chiricahua leopard frogs and narrow-headed and northern Mexican garter snakes.

The three-year agreement covers 140 miles of streamside habitat that runs through 22 different grazing allotments.

“We’ve been trying to remove cows from the Verde River for decades to protect disappearing habitat for songbirds and other endangered wildlife,” said Mark Larson. “This agreement should help. Cows have no place along desert streams.”

The agreement caps more than 20 years of effort to enforce a 1998 legal agreement in which the Forest Service agreed to bar streamside grazing until it could complete a consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts of grazing on endangered species.

The environmental groups undertook numerous surveys starting in 2019 that documented widespread cattle grazing along the Verde River in violation of earlier agreements. Cattle not only devour streamside vegetation and prevent the growth of willows and cottonwoods critical to the habitat, they also trample banks which can warm the water, increase siltation and destroy critical streamside habitat. Cattle leavings also can result in water-borne diseases. For instance, Girardia causes intestinal infections in both dogs and humans — causing stomach cramps, bloating, nausea and diarrhea.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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