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Enviros blast cattle grazing at critical habitat in Arizona's Agua Fria Monument

Throughout 2021, environmentalists say they observed destructive grazing across riparian areas along the Silver Creek, Long Gulch, and the Agua Fria River

Environmental groups sued the Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday for failing to monitor cattle grazing in Arizona’s Agua Fria National Monument, putting endangered fish and birds as well as critical habitat at risk.

The 33-page lawsuit criticized the federal government’s “ongoing failure to adequately protect and conserve threatened and endangered species that are being harmed by livestock grazing in the Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona.”

The Maricopa County Audubon Society joined the Center for Biological Diversity in the lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Located in Yavapai County 40 minutes north of Phoenix, the 70,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument was created by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

“Surveys [conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity] showed that cattle grazing on the Horseshoe Allotment has grossly exceeded utilization of herbaceous riparian areas and is chronically occurring outside of the permitted grazing season in riparian areas on the allotment,” said the lawsuit.

Impacted species include the endangered Gila chub and the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo which have designated critical habitat in the park's Horseshoe Allotment, as well as the Gila topminnow and the northern Mexican garter snake.

In a November 2006 biological opinion, Fish and Wildlife banned livestock grazing from 2006 to 2008 in the area to protect the Gila chub, an endangered ray-finned fish. When grazing resumed, it was initially limited to fall-winter seasons and rotated through three different areas.

Fish and Wildlife issued a letter in November 2018 renewing grazing for at the Horseshoe Allotment for 10 more years. The renewal took effect on March 1, 2021, and runs through Feb. 28, 2031.

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The Bureau of Land Management was tasked to use “mandatory timing restrictions, a rotational system, vegetation use thresholds, and fencing and exclosures” to protect river banks from cattle grazing along the Silver Creek, the Indian Creek and the Agua Fria River.

The federal agency reasoned that grazing could continue and “the adverse impacts to the threatened and endangered species would be insignificant due to the implementation of the conservation measures.”

In September 2020, the Bureau of Land Management issued its final environmental assessment finding “no significant impact” of grazing on the Horseshoe Allotment.

Throughout 2021, however, the environmental groups observed destructive grazing across riparian areas along the Silver Creek, Long Gulch, and the Agua Fria River.

“The Agua Fria River and Silver Creek are supposed to be protected from grazing, but we’ve repeatedly documented riparian areas that are filled with manure and trampled by cows,” said Chris Bugbee, southwest advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “Federal officials have ignored this destruction and let cattle run rampant, so we’re hopeful a judge will force them to do their jobs and protect these fragile ecosystems.”

Citing violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, the plaintiffs asked the court to order the Bureau of Land Management to “prevent any further adverse impacts” to the named species and their critical habitat.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Marc Fink and Brian Segee of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Neither the Bureau of Land Management nor the U.S. Forest Service responded immediately to inquiries for comment.

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Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity

Cattle grazing damage in Arizona's Agua Fria National Monument.