A federal judge ruled that the U.S. Forest Service is in violation of the Endangered Species Act throughout the eleven national forests of New Mexico and Arizona by failing to monitor and restrict livestock grazing on more than 15 million acres. The October 16 ruling by Judge Raner Collins came in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups, led by Forest Guardians.
In his ruling Judge Collins agreed with the environmental groups in concluding that the Forest Service had failed to comply with standards put into effect in 1996 that required the agency to monitor and protect the threatened Mexican spotted owl's habitat from degradation due to livestock grazing. Those standards called for monitoring and limiting grazing to ensure protection and recovery of streams and wetlands.
The ruling recognized that "grazing threatens the owl's survival because it reduces the amount of available prey, promotes destructive fires, degrades vegetation in riparian areas, and slows the development of productive habitat."
According to the Forest Service's own data, nearly 75 percent of grazing allotments in the Southwest, covering more than 15 million acres of land, are currently violating one or more of the grazing standards. Moreover, Forest Guardians and the other environmental groups have gathered information from the Forest Service showing that streamside ecosystems and fragile grassland areas are being severely overgrazed. In other areas, the agency is blindly permitting grazing without monitoring its effects.
"This landmark ruling will require the Forest Service to go back to the drawing board and do a better job of protecting endangered wildlife from damage to streams and grasslands caused by livestock," said John Horning, Forest Guardians' Executive Director. "This also confirms our belief that the Forest Service continues to bend over backwards to accommodate a few ranchers, and ignores the needs of native wildlife, plants, and streams."
The 1996 forest plan amendments at the heart of Judge Collins' ruling changed all eleven national forest land-use plans. The accompanying Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion required the Forest
Service to take various measures to protect habitat of the Mexican spotted owl and dozens of other endangered fish and wildlife species. At the time the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that immediate implementation of the standards set in the 1996 amendments was necessary to avoid jeopardizing the continued existence of the Mexican spotted owl.
"This ruling will force the Forest Service to comply with the management promises in the 1996 biological opinion and to consider whether any additional protections are necessary to avoid driving the owl into extinction," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell. "Our sincere hope is that this ruling will bring some balance back into the public's national forests and force the Forest Service to recognize that the forests in the Southwest belong to all of us rather than being the private domain of the ranching industry."
Collins's ruling states in critical part: "that failure to implement new grazing standards not only in the interim period between the adoption of the amendment and site specific analysis, as anticipated by the Biological Opinion, but also the failure to implement new standards even at the time of renewal of grazing permits, are actions by the Forest Service which may effect the owl and its habitat."
Forest Service monitoring data reveal that approximately three million of acres of land are being overgrazed. More significantly, the agency has no information for more than 15 of the 21 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.
A series of Freedom of Information Act requests first filed in 1998 -- and continuing annually through 2002 -- reveals that every national forest in New Mexico and Arizona is grossly violating the plan amendments, with some Forests such as New Mexico's Gila National Forest ignoring the plan requirements on 95% of the Forests' allotments. In addition, the Gila National Forest has arbitrarily ignored regional utilization limits and established their own limits, in some cases more than twice the permitted level.
The most recent assessments of stream and wetland conditions on the Southwestern National Forests found more than 90% of streams and rivers in poor shape. Streams and wetlands 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 critical 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. Population monitoring by independent ecologists indicates spotted owl populations continue to plummet on the National Forests of New Mexico and Arizona.
The lawsuit, which is the largest ever affecting cattle grazing on western public lands, now enters a critical phase to determine what remedy should be implemented to ensure the Mexican spotted owl is not harmed pending the completion of a new consultation process. Judge Collins has given the plaintiffs and the Forest Service until October 25, 2002, to submit briefs outlining the appropriate remedy and has set oral argument on the same issue for November 1.
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, and T & E Inc. The groups represent more than 50,000 residents of the Southwest who believe public lands should be managed primarily for the protection of fish and wildlife.