PHOENIX — An environmental group took the first steps Wednesday to filing suit against the U.S. Forest Service for failing to live up to its promise to keep cattle away from streams in Eastern Arizona.
The notice of claim by the Center for Biological Diversity says a review of streams throughout the upper Gila River watershed in the Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila national forests found evidence of cattle in several of the riparian areas.
That covers the Gila, San Francisco, Tularosa and Blue rivers and some of the creeks that flow into it, particularly Eagle Creek.
Brian Segee, an attorney with the environmental group, said this is more than just a visual issue, particularly as the areas in question are homes to several threatened and endangered species.
He said the damage caused, from trampling vegetation to “cow pies” in the streams, undermines the ability of these species to survive.
Segee, in the formal notice, told the Forest Service, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that if the problems are not resolved within 60 days, his organization will file suit.
There was no immediate response from the Forest Service.
Segee said it took until 1998 for the Forest Service to take a close look at the impact of cattle grazing on endangered species.
That year, in response to a lawsuit, the Forest Service agreed to prohibit domestic livestock grazing from hundreds of miles of streamside habitats while it finally consulted with Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts. That, Segee said, resulted in a promise by the Forest Service to exclude livestock from streams in the national forest.
“It’s been a foundation of their overall environmental compliance in relation to domestic livestock grazing, to say that the cows are off the river,” he said.
But Segee said examinations conducted by and for his organization found a lot of evidence that the cattle were there.
“Soil compaction and denuded soils are widespread across these impacted landscapes and trampled streambanks are common,” the claim reads. That affects the streams themselves, changing their flow.
Then there’s the grazing on some woody plants which otherwise would grow into trees to support some of the critical habitat of birds like the yellow-billed cuckoo.
And sometimes the effects were more direct.
“What we found is the cows are directly in the streams in many areas,” Segee said, creating a “direct water quality impact from cow pies in the stream.”