Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, November 2, 2023

Contact:

Taylor McKinnon, (801) 300-2414, tmckinnon@biologicaldiversity.org

Lawsuit Targets Cattle Grazing Damage to Endangered Wildlife Habitat on Arizona’s Gila River

TUCSON, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to protect habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and western yellow-billed cuckoo from cattle grazing damage along Arizona’s Gila River.

“This lawsuit will force federal agencies to follow their own rules and finally protect the Gila River’s fragile endangered species habitat from destructive livestock grazing,” said Taylor McKinnon, Southwest program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Livestock grazing decimates the streams that struggling species depend on and these federal agencies have repeatedly failed to protect endangered species habitat. This has to end before more wildlife slides into extinction.”

Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson, targets seven grazing allotments spanning 15 miles of the river downstream from Coolidge Dam.

Field surveys in 2022 and 2023 documented open gates, downed fences, unauthorized cattle and extensive damage to the Gila River’s riparian vegetation, where up to 92% of the surveyed critical habitat for the cuckoo and flycatcher was significantly damaged by livestock grazing. The Center filed two notices of intent to sue the agencies following the surveys but grazing continued.

Unauthorized grazing and its damage to the protected birds’ habitat violates earlier Endangered Species Act approvals for the seven grazing allotments.

Field surveys conducted by the Center in recent years have documented chronic and severe damage from unlawful livestock grazing to endangered species habitat across hundreds of stream miles along the Agua Fria, Verde, Gila, San Pedro, Black, Bill Williams, Big Sandy, San Francisco, Tularosa, Blue, Salt and other rivers and tributaries in Arizona and New Mexico.

Litigation and agreements resulting from those surveys require federal agencies to monitor and remove livestock from riparian critical habitat for endangered species. Agency compliance with those agreements has been mixed, with some areas seeing livestock removed from critical habitat, while in other areas unauthorized grazing persists.

Up to 75% of Arizona’s resident wildlife species depend on riparian areas for their survival, although riparian areas occupy less than 1% of the state’s land. During the 20th century most of Arizona’s low-elevation riparian habitats were destroyed by human activities, including livestock grazing.

In the desert Southwest, livestock grazing harms threatened and endangered wildlife and is the primary driver of riparian ecosystem degradation. Removal of livestock from riparian areas is a critical component of adaptation to human-caused climate change.

Unauthorized livestock grazing middle Gila River
Unauthorized cattle on BLM-managed public lands along the Middle Gila River. April 12, 2023. Photo credit: Center for Biological Diversity. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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