FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity today sued the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect an endangered species, the Chiricahua leopard frog, from livestock grazing in the Fossil Creek watershed in the Mazatzal Mountains of central Arizona.
“Cattle can wipe out endangered animals at Fossil Creek and similar sensitive areas,” said Jay Lininger, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Flagstaff. “Public agencies must protect natural treasures from excessive grazing, not sacrifice them to private interests.”
Approximately 290 cows were released into the Fossil Creek Range Allotment last September, and grazing is ongoing there now.
Last year, the Coconino National Forest approved grazing by nearly 500 head of cattle in the 42,000-acre range allotment straddling the Mogollon Rim between Camp Verde and Strawberry. A Forest Service study showed that degraded range conditions due to past grazing and ongoing drought could not support the approved grazing levels, and that adverse effects to the watershed were likely to result from more grazing.
The complaint filed today in U.S. District Court in Tucson states that the Forest Service violated its management standards by allowing grazing levels in excess of what agency science shows to be the capacity of the land.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to identify how many Chiricahua leopard frogs would be harmed or killed by livestock grazing — and by failing to limit that harm and mortality – as cows trample and dewater streams and wetlands.
The Fossil Creek watershed hosts the last remaining Chiricahua leopard frog habitat in the Coconino National Forest, according to federal biologists.
The grazing permit is held by J.P. Morgan & Chase Co., a multinational financial services firm.
Listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2002, the Chiricahua leopard frog needs permanent water to reproduce, making perennial Fossil Creek and 149 miles of tributary streams in surrounding uplands ideal habitat in an otherwise inhospitable desert environment.
But livestock grazing, water diversions, and dams have destroyed more than 80 percent of known habitat throughout the range of the species, which reaches from the Verde River basin into northern Mexico.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must limit “incidental take” of the frogs to avoid jeopardizing their continued existence at Fossil Creek, according to Todd Tucci, an attorney with Advocates for the West representing the Center in litigation.
But federal biologists failed to limit take when they signed off on the grazing proposal at Fossil Creek in a biological opinion issued by Fish and Wildlife last year and “clarified” in response to the Center’s notice of intent to sue in February.
“Federal biologists are ignoring the needs of Chiricahua leopard frog and letting cattle grazing drive it to extinction,” said Lininger. “Wildlife must come first in managing public lands.”
Fossil Creek was killed by civilization, restored in the new millennium, and now faces destruction by recreation and livestock grazing. Since 2004, Arizona Public Service Co. has removed two hydroelectric powerhouses and restored natural flows to the creek, and native fish species have replaced exotic ones.
“Fossil Creek is a resurrected river,” said Lininger. “But livestock grazing sets back public investment in restoration and benefits a massive bank with no stake in the local economy.”
Foresters had kept cows out of the Fossil Creek Range Allotment for part of the last decade because drought conditions and soil damage limited range capacity. Soil conditions are documented as “unsatisfactory,” “impaired,” or “inherently unstable” across 96 percent of the allotment, with only four percent of soils in “satisfactory” condition. Fully 60 to 87 percent of the allotment is in a downward range condition trend now, according to the Forest Service.
Soil erosion due to grazing and roads contributes sediment that harms aquatic life in Fossil Creek. Currently, soil loss is about 35 percent above normal, which translates into the erosion of eight tons of sediment per hectare each year.