Representing a coalition of environmental, hunting, and wildlife protection groups, Earthjustice sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service today for illegally approving a grazing plan harmful to the threatened Mexican spotted owl. The suit challenges livestock grazing on national forests in New Mexico and Arizona.
The suit, filed in federal court in Tucson, is the second lawsuit that seeks region-wide enforcement of grazing standards requiring the agency to protect sensitive wildlife, including the Mexican spotted owl. The standards, put into effect in 1996, require Fish and Wildlife to monitor and protect desert, forest, grassland, and streamside ecosystems from damage due to livestock grazing. The standards called for monitoring and limiting the amount of grass cows eat and restoring damaged streams. According to information obtained from the Forest Service, up to 80 percent of grazing allotments in the region violated one or more of these standards between 2000 and 2002.
Information acquired from the Forest Service also shows that many of the streams, rivers, and soils of the Southwest are in poor shape. The 1996 plan amendments called for the immediate protection of these riparian areas because of their importance to Mexican spotted owls for hunting, roosting, nesting, and dispersal. In addition, dozens of spotted owl prey species are closely associated with these critical arteries of life.
“We have a responsibility to protect southwest lands and the rare creatures that live here,” said John Horning, director of Forest Guardians. “Federal officials under the Bush administration have broken their promise to protect endangered wildlife on our public lands and are instead allowing the livestock industry to trample our waters and wildlife.”
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 allowing close to four million acres to be overgrazed. Even more troubling, the agency has failed to monitor other national forest grazing allotments and has no information for more than two-thirds of the 18 million acres of national forest land in New Mexico and Arizona that were open to grazing in 2002. 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 Oscar Simpson of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “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 monitoring requirements on more than 90 percent of the forest’s grazing allotments. In addition, the Gila National Forest has arbitrarily ignored limits regulating the amount of forage cows consume 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 Kevin Bixby of the Southwest Environmental Center.
The livestock industry has tried to shift blame for severe overgrazing to native wildlife populations such as elk. This is because the 1996 plan amendments call for limiting use by cattle and other hoofed grazers such as deer and 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 Animal Protection of New Mexico. “Furthermore, we believe populations of native wildlife such as elk should take precedence over cattle grazing and ranching interests.”
The suit, which is one of the largest ever filed against cattle grazing on public lands in the western United States, asks the federal court to order the Fish and Wildlife Service to go back to the drawing board and begin a new consultation with the Forest Service, as required by the Endangered Species Act. Mexican spotted owl habitat includes approximately 13 million acres of southwestern national forest lands.
In addition to Forest Guardians, other plaintiffs include New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Gila Watch, White Mountain Conservation League, Carson Forest Watch, Maricopa Audubon Society, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Southwest Environmental Center, Prescott National Forest Friends, and T & E Inc. The groups represent more than 30,000 residents of the Southwest who believe public lands should be managed primarily for the protection of fish and wildlife.
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