TUCSON― The Center for Biological Diversity filed notice today of its intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service for allowing livestock to inflict severe, widespread damage on Arizona’s Verde River and its tributaries and streambanks. The livestock grazing violates the Endangered Species Act, Forest Service guidelines, forest-management plans and grazing contracts.
Today’s notice is accompanied by a Center report showing that cows are trampling on, and defecating throughout, these once-unspoiled waterways and imperiling streamside vegetation, with damage found along nearly three-fourths of the 143 stream miles surveyed.
The law requires Forest Service officials to prevent grazing in riparian areas. Grazing permittees are required to maintain pasture fences so their cows won't harm the riparian areas of the Verde, Fossil Creek and other central Arizona waterways, where thousands of people come to boat, swim, birdwatch, hike and camp.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the damage grazing has done to Arizona’s only ‘wild and scenic river,’ ” said Robin Silver, cofounder of the Center. “The Forest Service is violating its agreement to keep cattle off these fragile rivers and streams that Arizonans treasure. They have a duty to protect the threatened and endangered animals that rely on these waterways for survival, and we won’t let them mismanage the Verde and its wildlife into extinction.”
In 1998 the Center reached a historic legal agreement with the Forest Service in which the agency agreed to prohibit domestic livestock grazing from hundreds of miles of southwestern streamside habitats, including the Verde River watershed, while it conducted a long-overdue consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts of grazing on threatened and endangered species. The consultation confirmed that grazing in arid southwestern landscapes destroys riparian habitat.
The Center’s report, based on months of field surveys, confirms that hundreds of cows, some of them feral, are destroying crucial habitat for 14 threatened or endangered species. These include imperiled fish, birds and snakes that rely on what should be healthy, lush riparian areas for their survival along the Verde River and its tributary streams: the East Verde River, Fossil Creek, Red Creek, Wet Beaver Creek and Sycamore Creek.
“Our field surveys show that the Forest Service is doing next to nothing to protect these fragile waterways and wildlife,” said Joe Trudeau, Southwest advocate at the Center. “Arizonans would be horrified to see the amount of feces, trampling and devastation that livestock have done to some of their most treasured rivers and streams. The Forest Service must make sure that livestock fencing is erected, better monitored, maintained and enforced. Permit holders who violate those rules should lose their grazing privileges.”
The Center launched field surveys in 2019 along the Verde River watershed following increasing reports of cattle destroying protected rivers.
Cattle and cattle-grazing damage were found along three-quarters of the stream miles surveyed, with 44% of stream miles ranked with moderate to significant grazing harm.
Damage from feral and permitted cattle was the most severe in areas near the confluence of the Verde and East Verde rivers, Fossil Creek and reaches up and downstream from there. Fence conditions were poor, or fencing was missing entirely, in dozens of locations inspected across the study area.
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 the recent listing of several additional threatened or endangered species that depend on southwestern riparian areas, including two species of garter snakes, yellow-billed cuckoo and Chiricahua leopard frogs, under the Endangered Species Act.