"The Forest Service is ignoring its own scientific data which shows these areas are horribly overgrazed by cattle. Inaction has forced this issue into the courts," said Marie Kirk, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. The Forest Service has monitored forage utilization levels on various allotments since 1998. Several rare species - such as the Mexican spotted owl and the Sacramento prickly poppy - inhabit the allotments and rely on healthy streams and watersheds for survival.
High levels of timber harvest and overgrazing by cattle have already turned once-healthy river ecosystems in the Sacramento Mountains into degraded stream channels with fragile soils, few native species, and sparse vegetation in desperate need of recovery. "Cows are polluting water and ruining the biologically rich streamside zone," said Forest Guardians' John Horning. "The Forest Service continues to bend over backwards to accommodate a few ranchers, and sacrifice our wildlife, plants and streams."
Streams in the Lincoln national forest that continue to be overgrazed include the Rio Penasco, Sacramento River, Hay Creek, Agua Chiquita Creek and various smaller streams and springs throughout the allotments, according to Forest Guardians. Forest Guardians alleges that the Forest Service must reduce cattle numbers and prohibit grazing along streams in order to ensure recovery of these biologically important areas before they are permanently lost.
The featured allotment in the lawsuit is the 110,000-acre Sacramento allotment, which is currently the largest allotment in the Southwestern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service has known since the early 1990s that the 553 cattle permitted on the allotment greatly exceed the lands' capacity and cause massive environmental damage. The Forest Service admits that more than 90 percent of the streams on the allotment are in poor shape and that cattle consistently graze up to 80-95 percent of the forage on the allotment.
The lawsuit is the first in New Mexico to allege that the Forest Service is failing to comply with requirements put into effect in 1996 that the agency monitor and limit forage utilization levels by ungulates, wild and domestic. The Forest Service established forage utilization limits as a part of a regionwide effort to recover degraded streams and grasslands to protect the endangered Mexican spotted owl and other wildlife.
The suit asks the federal court to require the Forest Service to initiate formal consultation with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service over the effects of permitted cattle grazing and require the agency to reduce cattle grazing to a level that protects streams, watersheds and endangered wildlife.