The suit, filed in federal court, asks for enforcement of standards put into effect in 1996 that require the agency to monitor and protect the Mexican spotted owl's habitat from damage due to livestock grazing. Those standards called for monitoring and limiting the amount of grass cows eat, and recovering damaged stream systems. According to information obtained from the Forest Service more than 75% of grazing allotments in the Region are violating one or more of these standards.
"Southwest riparian habitats are in trouble," said Marie Kirk, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "We have a responsibility to protect southwest lands and the species that live there. The Forest Service has broken the promise it made four years ago to protect the Mexican spotted owl and its habitat from overgrazing."
"Cattle are ruining the streams and driving out the small critters the owl needs for food," said Forest Guardians' John Horning. "The Forest Service continues to bend over backwards to accommodate a few ranchers. Native species and their habitats could be lost forever if this trend continues. In that case, we all lose."
In 1996 the Forest Service amended the region's national forest land and resource management plans – or "Forest Plans" – to include standards for protecting the habitat of the Mexican spotted owl and dozens of other imperiled fish and wildlife species. Also in 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published two Biological Opinions stating that the Mexican spotted owl could survive as a species on the condition that the standards were implemented.
Through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to the Forest Service since 1998, Forest Guardians obtained extensive information on every grazing allotment in the southwest and compiled a master database. The information shows that the Forest Service is not meeting Forest Plan requirements on a majority of the more than one thousand grazing allotments in the southwest. For example, Forest Service monitoring data reveals that close to 3 million of acres of land is being overgrazed. Even more troubling, the agency has no information for more than 10 million of the 18 million acres of national forest land in New Mexico and Arizona. Despite not having any information, the agency continues to permit grazing that damages fish and wildlife habitat.
"We are tired of hearing the age old excuse that the Forest Service doesn't have the resources to get the job done," said Kevin Bixby of the Southwest Environmental Center. "The real problem is the Forest Service's cavalier attitude of allowing livestock grazing, even when they know it will cause damage."
Some forests, such as New Mexico's Gila National Forest, are ignoring the forest plan requirements on more than 90% of the forest's grazing allotments. In addition, the Gila National Forest has arbitrarily ignored regional utilization limits and established its own limits, in some cases more than twice the permitted level.
"The Gila National Forest is one of the most ecologically important national forests in the region, yet the Forest Service continues to treat it as if it were privately owned by 100 ranchers who continue to destroy the land," said Susan Schock of Gila Watch.
According to the Forest Service, many of the streams, rivers, and soils of the southwest are in poor shape. Riparian and upland areas are vitally important to hundreds of species of fish and wildlife. The 1996 plan amendments called for the immediate protection of these areas because of their importance to Mexican spotted owls for roosting, nesting and dispersal. In addition, dozens of spotted owl prey species are closely associated with these critical arteries of life.
Because the 1996 plan amendments call for limiting use by cattle and other ungulates, such as deer and elk -- and not merely forage consumption by cattle -- the livestock industry has tried to shift blame for severe overgrazing to native wildlife populations such as elk.
"These claims are contradicted by the fact that elk don't graze like cattle and that regional elk populations are much smaller than the number of cattle on our national forests," said Lisa Jennings of New Mexico Animal Protection. "Furthermore, we believe wildlife populations such as the elk should take precedence over cattle grazing and ranching interests."
The suit, which is the largest ever filed against cattle grazing on public lands in the Western U.S., asks the federal court to order the Forest Service to go back to the drawing board and begin a new consultation under the Endangered Species Act on its Forest Plans. Mexican spotted owl habitat includes approximately 13 million acres of southwestern national forest lands.
In addition to Forest Guardians, other groups filing the suit include Gila Watch, White Mountain Conservation League, Carson Forest Watch, Maricopa Audubon Society, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Forest Conservation Council, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Southwest Environmental Center, and T & E Inc. The groups represent more than 20,000 residents of the Southwest who believe public lands should be managed primarily for the protection of fish and wildlife.