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New settlement puts San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area on a path to protection from livestock!

Photo: San Pedro River, WWP

In April 2020, we sued the Bureau of Land Management (“Bureau”) over its land management plan that authorized livestock grazing in the ecologically-critical San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (“NCA”) in Arizona. Yesterday, a federal judge approved a settlement agreement in which the Bureau agrees to re-analyze the impacts of cattle on the on the San Pedro Riparian NCA and decide whether to close this beautiful desert oasis to livestock grazing.

The San Pedro Riparian NCA was established in 1988 with a mandate to “conserve, protect, and enhance” the fragile river environment, and the original management plan excluded livestock grazing. However, shortly thereafter, the Bureau improperly added four grazing allotments through a land exchange and has been allowing livestock grazing ever since. (For an overview of the history of the San Pedro Riparian NCA, check out the Arizona Grazing Clearinghouse website.) When they started the process of renewing the grazing leases in 2009, WWP flagged their complete lack of authority to even do so, ultimately restarting a Bureau process to write the Resource Management Plan that was finalized in 2019 and which enshrined the illegal grazing use. With our subsequent lawsuit and our new settlement, we have held them accountable and things are going to change.

The settlement requires the Bureau to kick out trespassing cattle from closed areas, and to repair fences that keep cattle away from sensitive habitats. Livestock grazing will be authorized only if it “conserves, protects, and enhances the [San Pedro Riparian NCA] and the aquatic, wildlife, archeological, paleontological, scientific, cultural, educational, and recreational resources” found within its boundaries ­– an impossibly high bar for non-native livestock to clear in a fragile desert waterway. The San Pedro Riparian NCA is within the ancestral homelands of the Chiricahua Apache, Opata, and O’Odham people, and the area contains important cultural sites that would be better protected by a more rational management decision.

Today’s settlement compels the Bureau to reconsider in the next eight months whether livestock grazing within the San Pedro Riparian NCA is an appropriate use of this special place. This should result in a decision that kicks the cattle out and actually protect the imperiled Huachuca water umbel, southwestern willow flycatcher, desert pupfish, Gila topminnow, northern Mexican gartersnake, yellow-billed cuckoo, and Arizona eryngo. If it doesn’t, we’ll be back in court.

We’re pushing the Bureau to stop finding excuses to keep cows in the river because no one visits the San Pedro Riparian NCA to see cow pies, trampled vegetation, muddy waters, and ruined wildlife habitats. We’ll be watching the Bureau like a hawk and we’ll continue to hold them accountable.

WWP, Grand Canyon Chapter of Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity were represented by Advocates for the West in this litigation.

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