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Lawsuit over illegal grazing damage to endangered species habitat along the Big Sandy River in Arizona

Lawsuit over illegal grazing damage to endangered species habitat along the Big Sandy River in Arizona

TUCSON, Arizona. – The Center for Biological Diversity today sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, the threatened northern Mexican garter snake, and the threatened western yellow-billed cuckoo from illegal cattle grazing along the Big Sandy River in western Arizona.

“Throughout the Southwest, the Bureau of Land Management’s chronic failure to control illegal cattle grazing is turning streams and riverside habitats into trampled cesspools and pushing threatened species closer to the brink of extinction,” said Chris Bugbee, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Big Sandy River is just the latest example in a pattern of neglect. This lawsuit aims to force federal agencies to do their jobs, fix the problem and save this ecosystem.”

In 2023 and 2024, Center Field biologists documented unauthorized cattle grazing and associated damage to the species’ designated critical habitat at three rangelands on public lands along the Big Sandy River. On six of seven river miles surveyed, damage was significant and included destruction of riparian plants, shrubs, and trees, trampling of river bottoms and banks, and cattle scat in the river. Surveys showed limited damage from feral burros, whose local population the BLM has already begun to reduce.

Today’s lawsuit follows BLM’s failure to acknowledge or correct the problems after the center notified them in late 2023.

The Big Sandy River flows south from the western slopes of the Santa Maria and Arrastra mountains and joins the Santa Maria River in southern Mohave County to form the Bill Williams River. Habitats at risk include riparian forests above the river’s confluence with the Santa Maria.

Field surveys in recent years have documented chronic and severe damage from illegal cattle grazing to threatened species habitat along hundreds of miles of streams, rivers and tributaries on public lands in Arizona and New Mexico. A recent report from the center showed that cattle grazing has caused moderate to significant damage in much of the critical habitat designated for the threatened western yellow-billed cuckoo in both states.

As a result of litigation and agreements resulting from some of these investigations, federal agencies were required to monitor and remove livestock from critical riparian habitat. Agency compliance with these agreements varied. In some areas, livestock was removed from critical habitat, while in other areas, unauthorized grazing continued.

Up to 75% of Arizona’s wildlife species depend on riparian areas, even though these areas make up less than 1% of the state’s land area. During the 20th century, most of Arizona’s low-elevation riparian habitats were destroyed by human activities, including cattle grazing.

Throughout the desert Southwest, cattle grazing harms threatened and endangered wildlife and is the leading cause of riparian ecosystem degradation and species endangerment. Removing cattle from riparian areas is critical to stemming the Southwest’s extinction crisis.