A federal judge has ordered a halt to grazing activities in parts of 11 national forests in Arizona and New Mexico to protect the Mexican spotted owl. The ruling, issued November 22, requires ranchers to remove their cattle from sensitive owl habitat as of January 22, 2003. It also requires the Forest Service to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether the federally protected owls need additional protections. Mexican spotted owls are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The ruling came as a result of a lawsuit Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell brought on behalf of a number of conservation groups (see below). Population monitoring by independent ecologists indicates spotted owl populations are plummeting on the national forests of New Mexico and Arizona, primarily as a result of habitat destruction by cattle grazing and logging. In an October 16 ruling, the judge found that current grazing practices violate the ESA. In that ruling the court said the Forest Service had failed to comply with standards put into effect in 1996 that required the agency to monitor and limit cattle grazing to ensure protection and recovery of streams and wetlands, which are key parts of the owl’s habitat.
That 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.”
In 1996 the US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that immediate implementation of the standards set in the 1996 forest plan amendments was necessary to avoid jeopardizing the continued existence of the Mexican spotted owl.
Forest Service monitoring data reveal that approximately three million acres of land are being overgrazed in the Southwest. Additionally, the Forest Service had failed to monitor for overgrazing on more than 15 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.
The most recent assessments of stream and wetland conditions on the southwestern national forests found more than 90 percent of streams and rivers in poor shape. The 1996 plan amendments called for the immediate protection of these areas because of their critical importance to Mexican spotted owls.
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.