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Judge Rules Forest Service Violated Endangered Species Protections by Authorizing Grazing in Gila National Forest

The Copper Creek allotment on the Gila National Forest is illegally permitted

Santa Fe, NM - For the second time in as many months, a federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Forest Service is violating federal environmental laws when permitting livestock grazing on the Southwestern national forests. The recent ruling, which came in response to a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians, found the Gila National Forest violated both the Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Management Act by failing to fully consider the effects of grazing on endangered wildlife on the Copper Creek allotment.

In her 12-31-02 ruling, Judge Christina Armijo concluded that the Forest Service is not excused from compliance with the ESA or NFMA under a 1995 federal budget law called the Rescissions Act. Contrary to the Forest Service's claims, the Rescissions Act merely grants an extension of time for the completion of the analyses required by environmental laws, rather than an exemption. Further, Judge Armijo held that the Forest Service's practice of refusing to analyze the full impacts on threatened and endangered species of ten year grazing permits is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. The Forest Service preferred to analyze only a three year term, a period much less likely to show the long-term adverse environmental impacts of grazing. The Forest Service has conducted the illegal shorter consultations on millions of acres of grazing allotments on the eleven national forests throughout New Mexico and Arizona.

"The Forest Service can no longer pretend that it is complying with the mandate of the Endangered Species Act by conducting such scanty consultations when the law clearly requires that the agency consult on the entire term of the grazing permits," said Laurie Fulkerson, WildEarth Guardians' Grazing Program Coordinator. "This ruling will require the Forest Service to take into account the true, devastating impacts of livestock grazing over such a lengthy period of time on native wildlife and their habitat."

The Copper Creek allotment, like most areas on National Forest lands throughout the Southwest, affects the homes of a vast array of endangered wildlife species, including the Mexican Spotted Owl, Southwest Willow Flycatcher, Chiricahua Leopard Frog, Loach Minnow and Spikedace. It is also, according to WildEarth Guardians, just one of many allotments on which the Forest Service is ignoring evidence that livestock grazing must be halted in order to protect native wildlife and their habitat. The continued presence of the livestock industry on public lands, WildEarth Guardians argues, is fundamentally incompatible with restoring the balance of nature on these lands.

"This was another example of the Forest Service trying to make the law comply with its grazing program rather than its grazing program comply with the law," said Robert Wiygul, the Ocean Springs, Mississippi based environmental attorney representing WildEarth Guardians. "This ruling means that endangered species will begin to get a more level playing field."

The Copper Creek lawsuit is one of more than a dozen lawsuits brought by WildEarth Guardians to ensure that the Forest Service protects native forests, rivers, and endangered wildlife from damage by livestock. 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. A recent decision by an Arizona court found the Forest Service's grazing program was in violation of the ESA on a regionwide basis for failing to adequately analyze impacts to endangered species.

Read the Ruling [PDF].


 

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