TUCSON — The permitting of cattle grazing on the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation (SPRNCA) area has been a subject of contention since the U.S. Congress mandated the area be conserved, protected and enhanced in 1988.
However, nothing in the enabling legislation forbade livestock grazing on the now-55,000 acre SPRNCA.
Environmental groups and those who relish what SPRNCA has to offer – hiking trails, possibilities of spotting birds and wildlife, enjoying the peace and beauty found along the San Pedro River – took issue when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) developed and then adopted the resource management plan (RMP) in 2019.
The plan did not open new areas for grazing, but did continue the four grazing allotments on 7,000 acres on the SPRNCA.
A lawsuit against the BLM was filed in April by Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter because of the cattle incursions, as well as the lack of monitoring the impact on the SPRNCA from the four allotments.
Now, those allotments are being monitored by the BLM for impact to vegetation, wildlife and erosion. Fencing on those allotments is to be maintained, but cattle have managed to wander and ended up along the river, to the dismay of many who hike the trails.
On July 29, the BLM held a virtual public meeting with fifty-five stakeholders about the move forward on certain activities as stated in the RMP including vegetation management and grazing.
BLM Gila District Planning & Environmental Specialist Amy McGowan provided an overview of the plan and noted before any work would begin on the SPRNCA, public meetings would be held and the work projects explained. Regulations established in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) require an environmental assessment, so the BLM would have to first complete the study before any on the ground activity would begin.
Once the assessment is completed, BLM could begin implementation of, for instance, the recovery of bare ground, she continued. Once implemented, BLM would monitor the project, evaluate the progress, and could adjust the plan if it is not meeting the goals and objectives. People could be barred from certain areas if foot traffic is the cause of the bare ground.
With success of the Las Cienegas RMP, she said the BLM would follow it for the most part and adapt it to the condition on the ground in the SPRNCA.
Resident Lizann Michaud questioned the BLM on its failure to secure the river from livestock and reported several cattle incursions over the past few years and its current continuance. She wanted to know why the BLM has not removed the cattle.
“The BLM needs to address trespass violations,” McGowan replied.
Eric Baker, BLM rangeland management specialist, added it was “extremely difficult” to manage cattle down on the river.
“We are trying to focus on being a good neighbor. We work with the owner to maintain fencing and even provide it for them,” he said. “There are heavy handed actions we could take, but we don’t want to do that.”
Jayme Lopez, BLM Tucson field office manager, said, “It’s a good thing to be a good neighbor.”
Tricia Gerrodette, Sierra Vista resident and activist, disagreed.
“The BLM’s job is to protect the SPRNCA and its resources, not to be a good neighbor,” she said.
Resident Christie Brown described an incident down at the river involving cattle and their waste in the stream. Her concern was for the safety of children playing in the area at the time.
A number of people commented on the lack of action by the BLM to stop cattle incursions.
Kali Holtschlag was not sure why people saw a problem with cattle as they can be “the best tool to manage large landscapes.”
Since there are no federal guidelines for rangeland health, each state devises its own. The BLM will follow Arizona’s standard, but that drew a bit of concern.
Some questioned why the SPRNCA is considered rangeland when it’s a protected conservation area. No answer was given.
Baker explained the process to renew the grazing lease, which requires a land health evaluation and environmental assessment prior to the issuance of a renewal. The BLM wants to know if Arizona standards for grazing are being met and, if not, are the cattle detrimental.
The process uses 17 indicators related to soil and site stability which are assessed to get an overall rating. The process is “repeated for hydrologic function and biotic integrity.”
In addition to the 7,000 acres in allotments, BLM could use cattle for vegetation management in a targeted area, McGowan continued. “If it is used, it would be in a very controlled and we could create a brush break around the area.”
Margarita Guzman, acting Tucson field officer, and Theresa Condo, biological science technician, explained the BLM in Arizona will now use an assessment, inventory and monitoring strategy (AIM) as the framework to inventory and quantitatively assess the condition and trend of natural resources on the SPRNCA.
The plan is to focus on terrestrial and specific lotic vegetation in the uplands before studying the lentic vegetation which include wetlands and the flood plain of the river. The study would note the diversity of vegetation and its heights and track the presence of plant species of concern.
Tice Supplee, Audubon Arizona, pointed out, “AIM is still very developmental for riparian areas. I encourage using methodologies for lotic that have been used for a long time on SPRNCA. You should use citizen science where possible.”
McGowan assured old data would be used and combined with the new AIM data.
Kim Ryan, BLM, gave an overview of the renovation project at Fairbanks Mercantile building and Francisco Mendoza, BLM ranger for the SPRNCA, on the 5,100 acres established for hunting in the SPRNCA.
Lopez said, “There’s a lot of experience and expertise in this group. I look forward to working with everyone.”
McGowen and Lopez said the questions and comments made by the group would be answered and considered in moving forward.
McGowan is unsure where the comments will be posted, yet. She said in an interview she may start another webpage for the implementation of the RMP.
The stakeholders will receive an email providing them with the site address and what the next steps will be, she said.