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Environmental groups sue BLM over cattle calls on San Pedro River
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Environmental groups sue BLM over cattle calls on San Pedro River

Arizona environmentalists have followed through on their threat to sue the federal government over stray cows in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Phoenix-based Maricopa Audubon Society accuse the Bureau of Land Management of violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to keep trespassing cattle away from a rare plant called the Huachuca water umbel.

The San Pedro River harbors one of the few remaining populations of the plant, but damage from livestock is pushing the species to the brink of extinction, said Robin Silver, co-founder of the center.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Tucson cites dozens of complaints since 1995 about wayward cattle in the conservation area, but says the bureau has all but ignored the problem.

“Nearly all the core population of these highly endangered, delicate plants have been annihilated. They don’t stand a chance against the cows,” said Silver in a written statement. “We’ve been fighting for decades to save the San Pedro and its plants and animals. The BLM is either too timid or too apathetic to protect this fragile ecosystem from neighboring ranchers.”

Silver is among those responsible for getting the umbel listed as endangered in the first place, petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the semi-aquatic plant in 1993.

“This is not rocket science,” he said. “Fix the fences, maintain the fences and get the cattle out.”

The lawsuit names three BLM officials: Gila District manager Scott Feldhausen, Arizona state director Raymond Suazo and new national director Tracy Stone-Manning, whose nomination by the Biden administration was confirmed by the Senate on Sept. 30.

A spokeswoman for the BLM in Tucson declined comment on Friday because the agency does not discuss pending litigation.

The legal action comes on the heels of a new San Pedro River water agreement signed Sept. 21 by the bureau, Fort Huachuca, Cochise County and the city of Sierra Vista. That nonbinding Memorandum of Understanding calls for cooperative monitoring and management of water resources in the area to protect the riparian habitat along the San Pedro and the current and future needs of the Army base and surrounding communities.

Federal regulators added the Huachuca water umbel to the endangered species list in 1997 and designated much of the San Pedro River as critical habitat for the plant in 1999.

The conservation area about 80 miles southeast of Tucson is also home to other endangered species, including Southwestern willow flycatchers, western yellow-billed cuckoos, northern Mexican garter snakes, desert pupfish, Gila topminnows and Arizona eryngo plants.

Bureau officials are currently considering a 10-year renewal of four active grazing leases in parts of the conservation area, though the agency’s own analysis shows the leases have damaged parts of the 47-mile-long river preserve.

Livestock grazing is also at the center of a separate lawsuit, filed Thursday by the two conservation groups, over critical habitat for protected species in the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area near Safford, about 150 miles northeast of Tucson.

The Bureau of Land Management describes the area as a “year-round desert oasis … abounding with plant and animal diversity,” but field surveys by the Center for Biological Diversity have documented extensive damage from cattle, the lawsuit says.

“The BLM can wax poetic on its website,” said Maricopa Audubon president Mark Larson in a written statement, “but in reality the agency has handed over this wild and beautiful place to local ranchers and their cows.”

The video shared by Pima County shows debris flowing in the CDO Wash Aug. 10 after rain carried it from the burn scar in the Catalina Mountains left by last year's Bighorn Fire.

Similar post-fire debris flowed in the same area in Tucson last summer. Video courtesy Pima County via Facebook.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@tucson.com or 573-4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean


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