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Judicial Order Halts Livestock Grazing on Southwest National Forests to Protect Mexican Spotted Owl

January 22, 2003
WildEarth Guardians
In This Release
Public Lands  
Santa Fe, NM – The largest ban of livestock grazing ever issued on western public lands goes into effect today as a result of a judicial order issued this past November. The order requires the Forest Service to prohibit livestock grazing within Mexican spotted owl Protected Activity Centers (PACs) covering more than half a million acres throughout the eleven national forests in New Mexico and Arizona.

Federal Judge Raner Collins ordered the injunction as a remedy in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of groups led by WildEarth Guardians, in which the judge ruled that the U.S. Forest Service is in violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to monitor and restrict livestock grazing on allotments containing Mexican spotted owl PACs throughout Southwest national forests. The injunction is being implemented to ensure the Mexican spotted owl is not harmed by livestock grazing pending the completion of a new ESA consultation between the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In his 10-17-02 ruling, Judge Collins agreed with the environmental groups in concluding that the Forest Service had failed to comply with standards put into effect in 1996 that required the Forest Service to monitor and protect the threatened Mexican spotted owl’s habitat from degradation due to livestock grazing. Those standards called for monitoring and limiting grazing to ensure protection and recovery of streams and wetlands because of their critical importance to Mexican spotted owls for roosting, nesting and dispersal. The court found that the failure to implement the new grazing standards may harm the Mexican spotted owl and its habitat, requiring the Forest Service to re-consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.

Based on this finding, in his 11-22-02 Order, Judge Collins instructed the Forest Service to re-consult over the effects of livestock grazing on the Mexican spotted owl. If the consultation is completed prior to 1-22-03, the injunction will not be implemented. However, thus far, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have not completed consultation, so the injunction will likely go into effect as scheduled.

“This injunction should send a clear message to the Forest Service that they can no longer put cows ahead of native wildlife when managing public lands,” said Laurele Fulkerson, WildEarth Guardians’ Grazing Program Coordinator. “Since the Forest Service continually refuses to protect native wildlife and their habitat from the impacts of livestock grazing, the courts are a necessary means to force them to do so.”

According to the Forest Service’s own data, nearly 75% of grazing allotments in the Southwest, covering more than 15 million acres of land, are currently violating one or more of the grazing standards. Moreover, WildEarth Guardians and the other environmental groups have gathered information from the Forest Service showing that streamside ecosystems and fragile grassland areas are being severely overgrazed.

Specifically, Forest Service monitoring data reveals that approximately 3 million acres of land are being overgrazed. In other areas, the agency is blindly permitting grazing without monitoring its effects. For instance, the agency has no information for more than 15 of the 21 million acres of national forest land in New Mexico and Arizona. Despite not having any information, the agency continues to permit grazing that damages fish and wildlife habitat.

WildEarth Guardians has brought a series of lawsuits with the goal of protecting native wildlife and the ecosystems they inhabit from the detrimental impacts of livestock grazing. To date, the group has won important protections for many of the species dependent on healthy ecosystems on National Forests, such as reducing the number of cattle that can graze in key sensitive habitats and barring cattle from a number of streams and rivers throughout the southwest. The group argues that the continued presence of livestock on public lands is fundamentally incompatible with restoring the balance of nature on many ecologically sensitive public lands.

In addition to WildEarth Guardians, other groups filing the suit include Gila Watch, White Mountain Conservation League, Carson Forest Watch, Maricopa Audubon Society, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Forest Conservation Council, Arizona Wildlife Federation and T & E Inc. The groups represent more than 50,000 residents of the Southwest who believe public lands should be managed primarily for the protection of fish and wildlife.