October 20, 2021 | By:

Agreement Reached to Protect Endangered Species From Livestock on Arizona’s Verde River

Years of cattle grazing have destroyed vegetation and critical riparian habitat along Red Creek, a tributary of the Verde River.

Years of cattle grazing have destroyed vegetation and critical riparian habitat along Red Creek, a tributary of the Verde River. (Credit: Center for Biological Diversity)

A federal judge approved an agreement today among the Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon Society, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to protect the Verde River, its tributaries, and streambanks from cattle grazing.

This agreement comes more than 20 years after the federal agencies first promised to keep cows off these riparian habitats to safeguard rare plants and animals. It follows another agreement, reached with the agencies in August, to protect more than 150 miles of rivers and streams in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico’s upper Gila River watershed from cattle grazing.

“Keeping cattle from trampling these fragile wetlands will give rare plants and animals a fighting chance at survival,” said Robin Silver, a cofounder of the Center. “It’s unfortunate that it took decades and legal action for the agencies to do what they promised, but the agreement will help restore this beautiful river and its tributaries. Arizonans know the Verde is a special place and they want it to be protected. There’s no room for cattle here.”

The waterways are home to numerous endangered and threatened species, including southwestern willow flycatchers, yellow-billed cuckoos, Gila chub, loach minnow and spikedace fish, Chiricahua leopard frogs, and narrow-headed and northern Mexican garter snakes.

Today’s three-year agreement requires the Forest Service to ensure that more than 140 miles of streamside endangered species habitat along the Verde River, Fossil Creek, and other tributary streams in Arizona’s Prescott, Coconino, and Tonto national forests is protected from cattle grazing. The area covers 22 grazing allotments in the three national forests.

“We’ve been trying to remove cows from the Verde River for decades to protect disappearing habitat for songbirds and other endangered wildlife,” said Mark Larson. “This agreement should help. Cows have no place along desert streams.”

The Forest Service has agreed to monitor riparian areas, maintain and repair fencing, and remove trespass cattle when they’re detected by the agency, the Center, or the public. The agency also pledged to devise ways to address invasive species and other conservation challenges facing imperiled southwestern species.

In a historic 1998 legal agreement with the Center, the Forest Service agreed to prohibit domestic livestock grazing from these and other streamside habitats while it conducted a long-overdue consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts of grazing on threatened and endangered species.

Beginning in 2019, Center staff and contractors conducted surveys that found widespread, severe cattle damage — including manure and flattened streambanks — on the Verde River and its tributaries in all three national forests, imperiling several rare species.

In September 2020 the Center sued the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service in U.S. District Court for violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing cattle to trample the rivers and streams, including Arizona’s two wild and scenic rivers. Today’s agreement settles that lawsuit.

The agencies have repeatedly confirmed that livestock grazing in arid southwestern landscapes destroys riparian habitat and imperils native fish, birds, and other animals dependent on that habitat. Poorly managed livestock grazing, persistent drought, dewatering, global warming, and invasive species have taken an increasing toll on southwestern rivers, including the 170-mile-long Verde. This has resulted in recent federal protection of several additional threatened or endangered species that depend on southwestern riparian areas, including two species of garter snake, the cuckoo, and the leopard frog.

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