SIERRA VISTA — Once again the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is in the crosshairs of the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon for failing to remove stray cattle from the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
The SPRNCA is a protected habitat that provides a home for many mammal species over a 57,000-acre area. The ribbon of green over 40 miles from south to north created by the Fremont cottonwoods and Gooding willows becomes a rest stop of global importance in the spring as hundreds of birds make their way north to their breeding grounds.
It is a source of water for wildlife from bears to mountain lions and provides an amphitheater for amphibians during the monsoon. Endangered species in the area include Southwestern willow flycatchers, ocelots and jaguars, as well as the Huachuca water umbel and Arizona eryngo.
For years, the two environmental groups and many river hikers have complained about the cattle trespass problem, sending the bureau photos of the cattle, the damage done along the San Pedro River and GPS points to track them. In an email thread, bureau staff noted feral cattle can be dangerous and warned people to avoid them.
Though the center and Audubon prevailed in a court agreement last year in which the bureau acknowledged the problem and agreed to act on the complaints, they say the bureau has failed to do anything to remove the cattle or fence them out.
So, they have issued a notice of intent to sue and have compiled more than 90 complaints of trespassing cattle in the area. The notice says the bureau violated the terms of a 2022 agreement resulting from the 2021 lawsuit seeking to protect the conservation area.
June Lowery, bureau public affairs specialist, stated, “The BLM does not comment on pending litigation.”
In the past, the bureau acknowledged fencing along parts of the SPRNCA was not maintained, allowing cattle from nearby ranches to stray into the conservation area. Staff was to move forward on a plan to fence them out and eliminate the problem.
“The San Pedro and its endangered plants and animals don’t stand a chance against the cows,” said Robin Silver, a center co-founder “We’ve been fighting for decades to save the San Pedro and its fragile ecosystem. Sadly, the Bureau of Land Management is too apathetic to protect the river from abusive neighboring ranchers, whose cows are ravaging streamside habitats and pushing these species closer to extinction.”
Charles Babbitt, conservation chair of the Maricopa Audubon Society, said, “For years the BLM has turned a blind eye as cows feast upon and trample the water umbel and these beautiful wetlands. The plant’s health is an indication of how the whole ecosystem is doing. Sadly, the San Pedro National Conservation Area is on life support and its BLM caretakers are out to lunch.”
The bureau did provide a six-month report in February to the center and Audubon which lists the work done as required by last year’s agreement. The agency hired American Conservation Experience, which recruits, coordinates and trains conservation volunteers for environmental restoration projects in U.S. national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands.
So far, the ACE crew has inspected 64 miles of fencing and noted 180 points in need of repair or replacement of fencing gaps, according to the report. The crew has 38 more miles to go to complete the project as scheduled in May, according to Colleen Dingman, field manager and author of February’s one-page report.
The bureau has provided more than 20 miles of fencing to adjacent landowners so repairs can be made and there are only 30 more miles of fencing available. There is no funding available for more, she noted.
The bureau also is seeking a range technician to focus on the implementation of livestock monitoring and fence repairs, Dingman said.
The bureau acknowledged there are bacterial problems in the San Pedro River attributed to cattle waste and listed some sites as “impaired for exceedances of applicable standards for Escherichia coli (E. coli.),” in a report on the four grazing allotments the agency approved. “According to Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), the Babocomari River is now provisionally listed as impaired for exceedances of E.coli standards and is pending Environmental Protection Agency review. The reach of the San Pedro River from the border of Mexico to the Charleston gauge is also listed as impaired” due to the presence of E.coli.
“Unauthorized livestock grazing occurs on the SPRNCA and has the potential to impact vegetation by consuming the leaves of perennial grass and other forage plants as well as trampling vegetation and soil and reducing the vegetative cover in areas where cattle concentrate,” states the bureau’s resource management plan on the issue of grazing.
ADEQ recently announced a successful management of E. coli in the Lower San Pedro River basin, north of the SPRNCA.
Caroline E. Oppleman, ADEQ communications director, said, “In 2021, ADEQ’s Arizona Water Watch community science program and the Arizona Game & Fish Department began a partnership to study a segment of the San Pedro River near the Aravaipa Creek confluence that AZGFD owns and manages. ADEQ trained AZGFD staff in water quality sampling methods, loaned them scientific equipment, and they began collecting and continue to collect quarterly water samples at four locations along the river. Each of these samples is tested for metals, nutrients, inorganics, sediment, E. coli, and field conditions (pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen). The ADEQ/AZGFD study is ongoing.
“To help restore water quality in the San Pedro and reengage the floodplain for the enhancement of wildlife habitat, AZGFD is currently implementing best management practices, including constructing instream structures for water conservation and habitat development. The ADEQ/AZGFD collaborative study has and continues to show improvements in water quality, like the E. coli reductions we’ve already demonstrated. AZGFD is a valued partner of the AWW community science program and is providing important data.”
When asked if cattle are to blame for E.coli in the river, Oppleman responded, “While E. coli is naturally occurring in the environment, people and animals (wild and domestic) are known contributors of E. coli to surface waters. The best management practices that AZGFD is implementing, like limiting cattle grazing within the riparian corridors and slowing water flow to prevent movement of sediment that can contain E. coli, are likely contributing to the water quality improvements we are seeing.”
In addition to trespass cattle in the conservation area’s wetlands, drought, climate change and declining groundwater levels from overpumping are threatening the habitat of the Huachuca umbel, desert pupfish and Gila topminnows.
In a May 2018 letter from 21 scientists at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, a former Bureau botanist and a number of hydrologists, the agency was urged not to renew four grazing leases from the conservation area. The opinion was based on data that shows the practice “jeopardizes its many aquatic and riparian species and the area’s critically important role as an ecological reference site.”