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Despite federal restrictions, cattle have damaged conservation area along San Pedro River

Despite federal restrictions, cattle have damaged conservation area along San Pedro River

Much of Southern Arizona 'biodiversity hotspot' damaged by grazing, according to Center for Biological Diversity study

  • The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in 2019.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comThe San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in 2019.

Cattle grazing has seriously damaged most of the 42-mile long San Pedro conservation area in southeastern Arizona, according to a study by the Center for Biological Diversity, which pointed a finger at "cow-worshipping, rancher-fearing BLM employees."

The survey, released earlier this month the Tucson-based environmental group, identified about 39 miles of "significantly cow-damaged" habitat along the San Pedro River, as well as the nearby Babocomari River, and the St. David Cienega—all watersheds covered by the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. The center also documented "moderate damage" on another 1.82 miles.

"The survey found widespread damage — including denuded vegetation, trampling and cow feces — along the San Pedro River, where cows are prohibited year-round, and along the Babocomari River, where the BLM allows cattle grazing only during the winter," said the nonprofit organization earlier this month.

Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the conservation area covers about 57,000 acres of public land in Cochise County about 65 miles southeast of Tucson. Created in 1988, the San Pedro was the nation's first riparian conservation area, and includes 46 miles of the San Pedro and Babocomari rivers, and covers rare habitats in the Southwest, including cottonwood and willow forest, marshland, grasslands and mesquite bosques.

In the range are more than 400 species of birds, dozens of species of reptiles and amphibians, and around 80 species of mammals including ocelots and possibly northern jaguars. making what environmentalists call a "world-renowned biodiversity hotspot." 

In 1993, Life Magazine called the San Pedro one of "America’s Last Great Places." In the article, the conservation manager at the time, Greg Yuncevich described the necessity of protecting the area, telling the magazine: "As soon as we acquired it, we eliminated grazing, sand and gravel operations and off-highway vehicle use — the kinds of things that kept the river from being able to heal itself."

"We’ve essentially lost the entire San Pedro River understory because of grazing promoted and facilitated by cow-worshipping, rancher-fearing BLM employees,” said Robin Silver, a co-founder of the group. "Management of this fragile ecological treasure should be transferred to the National Park Service," Silver said.

The center completed the survey, released April 10, after repeatedly complaining to BLM about habitat damage by trespassing cows over the past three years. In August 2022, BLM officials promised to remove livestock from the riparian areas as part of a law suit filed by the center a year earlier.

However, the center has documented dozens of additional instances when cows crossed into the watershed, and the group found grazing "destroyed the largest core population of endangered Huachuca water umbel."

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the conservation area's manager, Scott Feldhausen, said in 2021 he hasn't rounded up the errant cows because of "fear of violence by local ranchers" to his staff.

"It’s impossible to settle any litigation with BLM employees who are simply not motivated to comply with the law,” said Silver. “It’s obvious we’ll have to go back to court to save the river from this devastating cow grazing."

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management cleared the way for increased cattle grazing in the protected range despite this criticism.

The center, as well as the Western Watersheds Project, and the Sierra Club criticized this move, arguing the decision prioritizes "private livestock use over wildlife, clean water, and native plants" and is part of the Bureau’s "long history of failing to comply with federal law."

This includes BLM’s 2019 management plan that "sanctioned destructive levels of livestock grazing on protected lands, putting the area’s remarkable resources at risk," the groups wrote.

"It’s disgusting, and not just because the bureau is selling out our precious waterways for political reasons," said Cyndi Tuell, Arizona and New Mexico director of the Western Watersheds Project. "It’s also just objectively gross to be hiking through cows pies and E.coli-laden streams hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare species that depend on these ‘protected’ habitats."

"Cows were supposed to be completely removed from this river,” said Silver. "With all the other threats the San Pedro River faces – groundwater depletion, climate change, the border wall, you’d think the land manager responsible for protecting it would have done more for the river and not capitulated to the livestock industry."

The groups warned the decision to add cattle violates the Endangered Species Act, affecting multiple bird species, as well as the tiny Gila topminnow, and the umbel, which has "been nearly eradicated from the area because of illegal livestock grazing in the Babocomari and San Pedro Rivers" which BLM has "been unable or unwilling to control."

The San Pedro faces several threats, including ground-water pumping and a future large-scale development. It was also the site of new border wall construction, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection installed a new wall across the river, including a metal bridge over the river bed for patrol vehicles.

Last year, the San Pedro was called one of the nation's "most endangered" rivers, along with the Colorado River, because of ground-water pumping that has caused once-free flowing sections to dry up.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva asked the Justice Department to investigate former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt over concerns he engaged in a quid-pro-quo relationship with a developer, who is seeking to build the Villages at Vigneto, a 28,000-unit housing and commercial development that could span more than 12,000 acres near the San Pedro River. 

Last year, Grijalva—at the time the chair of the House Natural Resource Committee—said Bernhardt and Michael Ingram—the owner of El Dorado Holdings, which would build the project— were involved in a scheme that likely violated federal law. In 2006, federal officials granted a Clean Water Act permit for Vigneto, a "Tuscan-style" complex, however, that was suspended in 2016. A year later, under the Trump administration the permit was re-evaluated under what Grijalva and U.S. Rep. Katie Porter called "unusual circumstances.

Ingram has disputed this, however, last year Grijalva and Porter referred him to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.

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