Despite President Joe Biden signing an executive order to “consider suspending, revising, or rescinding the agency actions” made during the Trump administration, environmentalists continue their efforts to halt projects.
Western Watersheds Project and Wilderness Watch, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, filed a suit in the U.S. District Court for Arizona seeking to halt the renewal of grazing permits in the Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila National Forests in Arizona and New Mexico. The groups assert the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by issuing a final decision notice and finding of no significant impact (FONSI) regarding grazing on the Greater Gila biosystem.
The Stateline Range project area covers 14 allotments located along and near the state line between Arizona and New Mexico, on the Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila National Forests. The area covers approximately 271,665 acres, with 126,243 acres in Arizona and 145,422 acres in New Mexico.
According to USFS, there are 3,686 head of cattle and 76 horses for a total of 45,867 animal unit months currently permitted through term grazing permits or authorized per decision notices on these allotments. Three of the allotments are used seasonally during parts of the year, while 11 are used year-round, rotating use through pastures at various lengths of time and time of year.
“The enormous scope of the Stateline Range grazing project, not to mention the ecological richness and sensitivity of the Greater Gila bioregion, demand more than just a cursory environmental review,” said Kelly Nokes, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “It is beyond the pale that the Forest Service concludes that the continuation of grazing across these unique habitats—which include the nation’s first designated wilderness area, the Gila Wilderness, as well as lands that are essential to the recovery of the endangered Mexican wolf— has no significant impact.”
A variety of wildlife species occur within the area, including several listed as endangered, threatened, or sensitive. The environmental groups state the entire project area lies within the “Management Zone 1 of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area,” and USFS didn’t “consider the special management implications of this essential landscape to wolf recovery.”
USFS, in their environmental assessment (EA), acknowledged the presence of the Mexican wolf and cited the populations in the project area were translocated to Gila Wilderness in 2000 and were “an experimental, non-essential population” per section 10(j) in the Endangered Species Act. The USFS stated, “By definition, an experimental, non-essential population is not essential to the continued existence of the species. Therefore, the preliminary determination is not likely to jeopardize for the Mexican gray wolf.”
However, Western Environmental Law Center states management removal due to conflicts with livestock impacts the recovery of the wolf. USFS affirms in the EA if wolves establish a territory within an allotment, nonlethal measures would be implemented first to reduce depredation.
In addition, the environmental groups assert cattle grazing has detrimental effects on the Greater Gila bioregion area, including “negative water quality impacts associated with grazing from E. coli contamination.” The San Francisco River runs through, or adjacent to, 10 of the 14 allotments. Over the groups’ objection, USFS proposes 16.7 miles of fencing in riparian and culturally sensitive zones to keep cattle from trampling these areas. Other improvements to the allotments include installing 27 water tanks, 51 water troughs and the construction of 46 miles of pipeline to transport the water.
“These areas provide refuge to wildlife squeezed into increasingly scarce pockets of wild, secure habitat, and now the Forest Service is opening the gates to thousands of cows and the development that comes with them—fencing, pipelines, storage tanks, water troughs—without any serious consideration of the impacts to this spectacular landscape,” said Dana Johnson, staff attorney with Wilderness Watch in a press release.
The groups are asking the court to remand the EA and the FONSIs issued by USFS back to the agency. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor