FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.— Citing violations of the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act, a federal district court judge on Monday overturned a U.S. Forest Service decision allowing domestic livestock grazing across a 42,000-acre area of the Fossil Creek watershed on the Coconino National Forest in central Arizona.
“Fossil Creek is one of the Southwest’s most important river reaches,” said Taylor McKinnon, with the Center for Biological Diversity in Flagstaff. “The court’s ruling is a victory for this beautiful creek, its diverse array of native species and the public investments that have been made to recover them.”
The ruling holds that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately consider the potential effects of livestock grazing on the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog when it issued a “biological opinion” authorizing the grazing plan. The court also ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately quantify the amount of incidental “take,” or harm, to the leopard frog, and failed to analyze the effect of the approved plan on the frog’s chances of recovery — all violations of the Endangered Species Act.
“The court’s ruling is significant because it will help protect the last known population of Chiricahua leopard frogs on the Red Rock Ranger District,” said Todd Tucci, a senior attorney at Advocates for the West who argued the case on behalf of the Center.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the court ruled that the Forest Service had relied on inaccurate information in its environmental assessment concerning the impacts of grazing on soils in the Fossil Creek watershed. Specifically, the agency made an incorrect assumption that a two-thirds ground-cover objective would be effective across the entire allotment, when in fact it would not.
In its environmental assessment, the Forest Service documented unsatisfactory, impaired or inherently unstable soil conditions across 96 percent of the allotment, with only 4 percent of the soils in satisfactory condition. Soil loss in the allotment is currently about 35 percent above normal, causing eight tons of soil loss per hectare annually. Today, 60 percent to 87 percent of the allotment is in declining range condition.
The permit holder, J.P. Morgan-Chase & Co., which maintains interests in the historic Ward Ranch of Rimrock, Ariz., reintroduced about 290 cows in September 2009.
“In authorizing this grazing plan, the feds gave Fossil Creek and its endangered species short shrift in favor of J.P. Morgan-Chase,” said McKinnon. “We’re glad the court is demanding a course correction.”
Download a copy of the ruling here.
Fossil Creek is one of Arizona’s rare perennial streams, flowing from Fossil Springs in the central Mogollon Rim country southwest to the Verde River. The surrounding landscape is rich in unique biological resources, including native fish and wildlife, cultural sites, wilderness areas, colorful wildflowers, abundant riparian vegetation and crystal-clear spring waters.
Fossil Creek and its watershed provide habitat for threatened, endangered and sensitive species including the desert nesting bald eagle,desert pupfish, Gila topminnow, loach minnow, spikedace, razorback sucker, southwestern willow flycatcher, headwater chub, roundtail chub, desert sucker, Chiricahua leopard frog and Mexican spotted owl.
After years of grassroots activity, legal notices and intense negotiations, the Center and coalition partners, including the Yavapai-Apache Nation, prompted a celebrated 1999 decision to lower the diversion dam and close the environmentally destructive power plants that took Fossil Creek water away from the stream. Under the terms of the coalition’s agreement, the Irving and Childs power plants were decommissioned in 2005, which began a process to restore Fossil Creek and its natural assemblage of native species.
The Center has also worked to protect the habitat of the loach minnow and spikedace, two threatened fishes that had been extirpated from Fossil Creek, and in 2007 our efforts resulted in the momentous reintroduction of the species to the area. The Center has advocated for improved management of Fossil Creek by federal agencies as visitation to the area has significantly increased, threatening the health of the river and its species.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
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