An environmental group has threatened to sue the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the agencies are allowing livestock grazing in restricted areas along the Gila River watershed in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.
The Center for Biological Diversity sent its notification letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, as well as national and state representatives of the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife, on Wednesday.
The letter alleges that cattle are in the Gila National Forest in riparian areas excluded from grazing by the Endangered Species Act and a 1998 legal settlement between the center and the Forest Service.
“The Forest Service has completely abdicated its legal responsibility to protect these fragile waterways and the wildlife around them,” Brian Segee, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “We found cows, trampled streambanks and water polluted with feces on nearly every mile of stream we surveyed. The Forest Service is failing to protect endangered animals that rely on these rivers and streams for their survival. We’re hopeful a court will force it to take immediate action.”
The Center for Biological Diversity said it will sue in federal court if the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife do not remove the cattle in 60 days.
The Forest Service declined to comment on the letter, citing pending litigation.
The watershed area referenced in the letter is home to eight federally threatened or endangered species: the yellow-billed cuckoo, Southwestern willow flycatcher, Gila chub, Loach minnow, spikedace, Chiricahua leopard frog, Northern Mexican garter snake and narrow-headed garter snake.
The center sued the Forest Service in 1997, arguing that livestock grazing on the Gila was harming those species. The resulting settlement in 1998 required the Forest Service to remove cattle from hundreds of miles along streams on 23 allotments in the Gila Wilderness. The Forest Service was also required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the impact of livestock grazing on river health and endangered species.
The center surveyed more than 100 miles on the Gila watershed in 2017 to determine if cattle were present in the restricted areas. Surveys found long stretches of damaged fences between private property and Forest Service land, which allow cattle to graze in restricted areas along the river. The center’s survey results show that cattle are trampling plants on the Gila and eroding the riverbanks.
The alleged violations occurred recently, according to the center.
The Forest Service has previously complied with the Endangered Species Act obligations by preventing grazing in the restricted areas on the Gila and promoting recovery of river plants and wildlife.