San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area Threatened

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
San Pedro River near U.S. 90, August 2017 (Jeff Burgess)

Arizona’s Gila District Office of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a draft resource management plan  on June 29, 2018, that proposes to increase permitted cattle grazing in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) by about 375%.

The SPRNCA is a special place and was the BLM’s first nature preserve, a product of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 passed by Congress with the support of President Jimmy Carter. The passage of FLPMA was a historic environmental achievement because it changed the BLM from an agency focused on commodity production into one that is required to administer the public lands under their jurisdiction according to the multiple use doctrine, like the U.S Forest Service.

Another important environmental law, the Endangered Species Act, had been signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, less than four years before Carter took office. One of Carter’s environmental priorities was to protect endangered species habitat by bringing it into public ownership, and the passage of FLPMA meant that BLM lands could be managed for wildlife too. Congress significantly increased the funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and boosted the budget of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in order to help the Carter administration acquire more public land for wildlife habitat protection.

The USFWS, under the leadership of Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, subsequently began conducting surveys across the U.S. to identify important wildlife habitat that could be purchased and brought under federal ownership. In January 1978, after a suggestion from the Nature Conservancy, they surveyed the privately owned San Pedro River from Hereford to Winkleman. Their report said the river had “the richest assemblage of land-mammal species” in the U.S., and  they designated the San Pedro as a priority for federal acquisition because of its unique and endangered desert riparian ecosystem. The lands identified for purchase were comprised of the San Juan de las Boquillas y Nogales and San Rafael del Valle Spanish land grants. They were owned by Tenneco, which had bought them in 1971 as a real estate investment. But the USFWS was never able to buy the land from Tenneco because President Ronald Reagan put an end to Carter’s ambitious public lands acquisition program when he assumed office in 1980.

In the meantime, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt was worried about the future of the sensitive wildlife habitat owned by the Arizona State Land Department. Under the State Enabling Act passed by Congress in 1910, these lands had to be used to generate revenue for the beneficiaries of the State Trust, the largest being K-12 public education. Babbitt wondered if state lands with important habitat could be traded for BLM lands which had the potential for real estate development. This would put important natural resources under federal protection while giving the state more commercially valuable lands.

1985 MOU Between Arizona and the BLM

Babbitt gained an ally for his land exchange strategy when Dean Bibles was appointed the Arizona Director of the BLM in July 1982. But there were still some issues they needed to resolve. Almost all of Arizona’s state lands were commercially leased to ranchers for livestock grazing, and ranchers whose state grazing leases would be affected by land exchanges could file protests.

On March 12, 1985, the BLM and State Land Department addressed this issue by signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to facilitate the exchange of lands between the two agencies. It addressed the concerns of state grazing lessees by stating that, “The exchange should not interfere with ranching operations.”

But the MOU had other clauses that conflicted with this promise. It included a caveat, for example, that said, “Unless the land is to be dedicated to a use that would preclude grazing.” And it stated that one of the primary purposes of the proposed exchanges was to “protect, wilderness, wildlife habitat, recreation and other public values.” The MOU also stated the obvious fact that the exchanges were subject “to the laws of the United States.” This included FLPMA, which required the BLM to manage livestock grazing in the public interest and prohibit it where it was inappropriate. Arizona’s state grazing allotments were notoriously overgrazed, so how could the BLM allow inadequate grazing management to continue on the state lands it acquired in exchanges, as this would violate the objectives of the MOU and federal law? These contradictions were waived off by proponents of the land exchanges by explaining that the state grazing leases inherited by the BLM would only be honored until they expired, which would be no longer than 10 years – the term of a state grazing lease.

Babbitt didn’t run for re-election as governor in 1986, and Bibles was transferred out of Arizona in 1989, but they completed land exchanges before they left which brought hundreds of thousands of acres of important wildlife habitat into BLM ownership, including Aravaipa Canyon, the Muleshoe Ranch, and Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.

Subsequently, when Tenneco put their San Pedro lands up for sale in 1985 Arizona conservationists asked Bible to conduct an exchange to acquire them. He offered Tenneco some commercially valuable BLM land but the company said it wanted cash. A three-party deal was subsequently worked out, with Babbitt’s help, wherein a real estate developer paid Tenneco $30 million for the land, and then traded 43,372 acres of it for about 41,000 acres of BLM desert land west of the White Tank Mountains near Phoenix. Bibles considered this acquisition, which brought a 30-mile long stretch of the San Pedro River into public ownership, the most important land acquisition the BLM had ever done.

After the San Pedro exchange was officially completed in the spring of 1986 the BLM announced they were keeping the acquired lands closed to the public until they could complete a natural resources inventory, and draft a management plan using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public planning process.

At this same time Arizona conservationists were promoting federal legislation that would officially designate the newly acquired BLM land along the San Pedro as a riparian preserve. The first bill to create the SPRNCA passed the U.S. House of Representatives in August 1986. It was sponsored by Tucson’s Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe and had strong support from Arizona’s congressional delegation. Conservationists wanted the acquired land to be transferred to the USFWS so it could be managed as a wildlife refuge. But political opposition forced that proposal to be dropped. So, instead, they pushed for a prohibition on livestock grazing in order to ensure that the local BLM officials would not find grazing to be an appropriate multiple use in a riparian area. That also ran into opposition, so they agreed to a 15-year moratorium on grazing. But even after these political compromises were made the bill was opposed in the Senate, primarily by Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., who was a rancher, and Sen. James McClure, R-Idaho. They objected to the grazing moratorium and the use of the word “riparian” in the bill. The bill was withdrawn in October by Arizona’s Sen. Dennis DeConcini.

The bill to create the SPRNCA was reintroduced in 1987 and passed the House again. But the Reagan administration actively opposed the bill’s grazing moratorium and it got stuck in the Senate again. The grazing moratorium was also opposed by the National Cattlemen’s Association because, according to them, it would set “an unfortunate and unnecessary precedent” on BLM lands.

The creation of the SPRNCA had to wait until Congress passed an omnibus public lands bill called the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act of 1988. This bill dropped the 15-year grazing moratorium along the San Pedro but said the BLM could only allow those multiple uses that “will further the primary purposes for which the conservation area is established.” It also expanded the SPRNCA’s official boundaries beyond the lands acquired in the Tenneco exchange, increasing the conservation area to about 56,431 acres, and it authorized the BLM to conduct land exchanges with the state and make purchases from willing private land owners in order to help acquire inholdings within the new boundaries and create a consistent buffer strip along the river.

The San Pedro was the last major undammed river in the arid Southwest, and home to more than 315 species of birds, 82 types of mammals, and 45 kinds of reptiles and amphibians. It had been degraded by years of livestock grazing, but the ecological building blocks were still there and desert riparian areas had shown an ability to recover after grazing was ended.

1989 BLM San Pedro River Riparian Management Plan

The BLM had started working on a riparian management plan for their new lands along the San Pedro River in 1987, and had released a draft plan for public comment in June 1988. The law that created the SPRNC was passed after that, in November, and it raised some issues that needed to be addressed in their draft plan. The new legal requirement to allow only those uses that protected and enhanced the riparian area obviously meant the draft plan should be revised to prohibit livestock grazing. (The BLM had already decided to let a private grazing lease they had inherited with the acquisition of the San Pedro lands expire.) But the agency failed to change the draft riparian management plan to include a prohibition of grazing. Instead, they said “BLM does not regard livestock grazing to be incompatible with the continued existence of the riparian ecosystem,”  and a “decision was made” to stick with the political compromise that had been considered in Congress to implement a 15-year grazing moratorium, after which the possibility of grazing would be “re-evaluated.”

Another issue was the additional lands the bill had added to the SPRNCA. After the BLM’s initial land exchange with Tenneco in 1985, they had conducted smaller exchanges in 1986 and 1987 to acquire state and private inholdings along the river, so the BLM’s draft riparian management plan had included about 47,668 acres. The bill creating the SPRNCA had added approximately 8,763 additional acres to the project area. The BLM arbitrarily decided to address the management of these acres in their upcoming Safford District Resource Management Plan. (The Safford District is now just a field office in the BLM’s Gila District.) The BLM’s Safford District manager issued a decision to implement the final San Pedro River Riparian Management Plan on August 15, 1989, after President George H. W. Bush had assumed office.

San Pedro River Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA)

The Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association had opposed the plan’s 15-year grazing moratorium, and so had the local Cochise-Graham Cattle Growers’ Association. But this was a time of increasing public awareness in Arizona about the importance of protecting riparian habitat. Local conservationists were warning that more than 90% of the state’s original riparian areas had been destroyed, altered, or degraded, while at least 75% of the state’s wildlife species depended on riparian areas for some portion of their life cycles. And they pointed out that five of Arizona’s 32 native fish species were no longer found in the state, and many of the remaining ones were endangered or threatened.

The Commission on the Arizona Environment had responded to this popular interest in riparian area protection by hosting a large public conference in Prescott during the summer of 1988. The attendees  produced recommendations to protect riparian habitat, and Arizona Governor Rose Mofford subsequently issued Executive Order 89-16, Streams and Riparian Resources in June 1989. (She followed this up with Executive Order 91-6, Protection of Riparian Areas in 1991.)

1992 BLM Safford District Resource Management Plan

The BLM issued their proposed Safford District Resource Management Plan (RMP) in September 1991. It estimated that the size of the SPRNCA was only 54,189 acres – about 2,242 acres less than previous estimations. It also said the SPRNCA acres that hadn’t been addressed in the 1989 San Pedro River Riparian Management Plan amounted to 6,521 acres – not the previous estimate of 8,763 acres. These 6,521 acres had been excluded from that plan, the BLM explained, because they had been acquired prior to the 1988 creation of the SPRNCA through land exchanges with the state, so they were subject to existing state grazing leases, as per the 1985 MOU. But the law that created the SPRNCA said that all of the BLM land within the conservation area’s boundaries had to be managed for riparian habit protection. The BLM, however, arbitrarily disregarded the fact that the new federal law pre-empted the interagency MOU and proposed to continue livestock grazing on the 6,521 acres “for the term of these leases.”

The degree to which the affected state grazing lessees believed the MOU still applied to their situations is questionable. According to State Land Department records, they signed their grazing leases in 1986, the same year the initial San Pedro land exchange with Tenneco was completed. It was well known that the BLM had acquired the land to manage it as a riparian preserve. Also, the first bill to create the SPRNCA was introduced in Congress in 1986, and it included the 15-year grazing moratorium and an intention to expand the project outside of the boundaries of the original land exchange. They must have known their grazing leases were on shaky legal ground.

The RMP also promised that the BLM would “intensively manage” the 6,521 former state acres and implement grazing allotment management plans for the “protection of the riparian values of the National Conservation Area.” This promise was important because one of the grazing allotments included 2.5 miles of important riparian habitat along the lower Babocomari River, a tributary of the San Pedro.

The decision to honor the state grazing leases and the promise to implement appropriate livestock management on the 6,521  acres was the only information the BLM included about these lands in the RMP’s environmental impact statement (EIS). In other words, after producing two management plans that applied to the SPRNCA, the BLM still hadn’t completed a NEPA analysis for these former state lands.

The BLM issued their final decision for the Safford District RMP in the fall of 1992, but it was only a partial one because they said several controversial issues needed to be “deferred.” One of these issues resulted from a clause that was included in the 1989 San Pedro River Riparian River Management Plan that said, “Lands may also be obtained outside the boundaries for the protection and enhancement of the resource values found outside the EIS area.” The official boundaries of the SPRNCA included the upstream stretches of the San Pedro south of Interstate 10. Conservationists wanted the BLM to acquire more riparian habitat along the downstream stretches of the river, north of I-10 to its confluence with the Gila River.

In 1988, however, the Arizona Supreme Court had put a stop to the State Land Department conducting exchanges with the BLM. The court had issued a ruling that the Arizona Legislature needed to amend the  Arizona Constitution to give the State Land Department the authority to make land exchanges, even though Congress had authorized the state to make them in 1936. Until the legislature passed that amendment, the court said, state lands could only be acquired by purchase at a public auction. Subsequently, the BLM’s plan to acquire more riparian habitat along the San Pedro north of I-10 had to rely upon the purchase of private land from willing sellers.

Local landowners reacted angrily when the BLM released a map in June 1992 that showed the private parcels it wanted to acquire along that part of the San Pedro. Subsequently, Arizona BLM Director Les Rosenkrance suspended the initiative and explained in his subsequent partial RMP decision that a new planning process had been initiated with local landowners to resolve the conflicts.

In 1994 Rosenkrance issued another partial decision for the Safford District RMP regarding the issues that had been deferred from his 1992 decision. In regards to the acquisition of land along the San Pedro north of I-10, he said the BLM was adopting a new review process agreed to by the local landowners. It had the goal of determining if the conservation of riparian resources could be “accomplished without acquiring title to the land.” This effectively put an end to the BLM’s efforts to acquire more land along the San Pedro outside the boundaries of the SPRNCA.

2018 SPRNCA Draft Resource Management Plan

The SPRNCA Draft Resource Management Plan (DRMP) and accompanying EIS the BLM’s Gila District released in June includes a new estimate of the size of  the SPRNCA. It says it actually encompasses 55,990-acres, while the former state grazing lands, it says, are now estimated to be 7,030 acres. The BLM says that improvements in GIS technology likely caused these differences.

Proposed Grazing in the SPRNCA
The BLM is proposing to permit cattle grazing in the areas highlighted in purple on this map of the SPRNCA.(BLM DRMP, June 2018)

The DRMP’s biggest surprise, however, is the BLM’s proposal to increase livestock grazing on the SRPNCA to include 26,450 acres – an increase of more than 375%! They propose to authorize up to 3,363 additional animal unit months (AUMs) on these new grazing lands – about 280 head of cattle yearlong. The BLM says areas will somehow be “identified” for grazing on the SPRNCA’s Chihuahuan Desert uplands, but livestock will continue to be prohibited in its riparian areas, with the exception of the lower Babocomari River. They also say that grazing will not be allowed to begin on these new areas until fences are built to prevent cattle from accessing the river, but they fail to mention the taxpayers might have to pay for them. The permits to graze these areas, they say, will be made available as per 43 CFR § 4110.4-1, meaning they will be given away “to qualified applicants at the discretion of the authorized officer.” These new grazing lands will be added to the existing 7,030 acres of former state grazing lands that the BLM proposes to continue to graze.

The DRMP doesn’t include any specific livestock grazing management prescriptions, but it says the BLM’s Arizona Standards for Rangeland Health and Guidelines for Grazing Administration will apply to all grazing on the SPRNCA. These standards and guidelines (S&Gs) were implemented by the Arizona BLM in 1997 as a result of the public lands grazing regulatory reform initiative known as Rangeland Reform ’94, promoted by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt during the administration of President Bill Clinton. They took effect on August 21, 1995, and were intended to improve livestock management and increase public participation in the management of grazing on BLM and Forest Service land.

The Arizona BLM’s 1997 grazing standards are divided into three sections:

  • Standard 1: Upland Sites
  • Standard 2: Riparian-Wetland Sites
  • Standard 3: Desired Resource Conditions

The BLM was required to establish a schedule to eventually assess all of their grazing allotments, and if an allotment failed to meet one of these ecological standards due to inadequately managed grazing, corrective action was required to be implemented by the agency no later than the start of the next grazing year. (The BLM changed it to 24 months during the George W. Bush administration in 2006.)

The DRMP’s EIS, however, includes few other details about livestock grazing on the SPRNCA, despite that fact that the BLM has never completed a NEPA analysis for the former state grazing lands, and is proposing to significantly increase grazing.

History of BLM’s Management of Grazing on the SPRNCA

The history of the BLM’s livestock management on the four grazing allotments that comprise the 7,030 acres acquired in exchanges with the state is an indicator of how the they might manage the 19,420 acres they have proposed to add to the area being grazed on the SPRNCA. According to the 1992 Safford District RMP, the existing livestock management on these BLM allotments would only be “recognized” for “the term” of the prior state grazing leases. However, when the inherited state leases expired on these allotments in 1996, the BLM did little to implement grazing management that complied with the primary purpose of the SPRNCA.

The 1992 RMP also said that allotment management plans “would be prepared” for these four allotments – which are the Babocomari, Lucky Hills, Brunckow Hill, and Escapule (now called Three Brothers) allotments. But none have been completed. Instead, in 1996 the BLM started working with the local office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement a Coordinated Resource Management Plan (CRMP) for the Lucky Hills Ranch, which includes the BLM’s Lucky Hills allotment. A CRMP isn’t the equivalent of an allotment management plan (AMP). CRMPs are typically used to identify livestock management plans for ranches that are a mixture or private, state, and federal land. Ranchers are required to complete them in order to apply for conservation grants from the NRCS. They aren’t drafted using the NEPA public planning process, and the BLM can’t enforce compliance with the terms of a CRMP.

The Lucky Hills Ranch CRMP was completed in 1997. It said the ranch included 1,729 acres of BLM land within the SPRNCA, although Table 3-46 in the DRMP says the SPRNCA’s Lucky Hills allotment is only 448 acres. The CRMP explained that the ranch didn’t include any riparian areas, but it was adjacent to the San Pedro River so its management could affect the watershed. It said upland range conditions varied from poor to excellent, and prescribed a rotational grazing system for the ranch, with each pasture to be grazed for about two months. But it also allowed a maximum annual upland forage utilization rate of up to 60%, which is too high to be appropriate for a nature preserve.

It’s unclear if the Lucky Hills Ranch CRMP was initiated by the BLM to try and comply with the 1992 RMP, or if it was a response to the lawsuit that was filed against them on January 3, 1996, by the Center for Biological Diversity. The lawsuit accused the agency of failing to consult with the USFWS about the grazing they were permitting in endangered species habitat on BLM lands in southeast Arizona. The BLM quickly initiated Section 7 consultation with the USFWS and in May sent them a Biological Evaluation (BE) that provided some descriptions of the existing livestock management situations on the agency’s grazing allotments in the region, including the four grazing allotments on the SPRNCA.

The USFWS responded to the BLM with a legally binding Biological Opinion (BO) regarding the agency’s grazing management in the region on September 26, 1997. The BO incorporated several mitigation measures the BLM had promised to implement in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, and some of them applied to the SPRNCA allotments.

Some of the mitigation measures were quite specific. In order to protect the endangered Huachuca water umbel, a semi-aquatic plant, the BLM promised to remove trespass cattle from the SPRNCA as soon as possible and maintain the fences that were supposed to keep them out. Furthermore, they promised to work with the lessee to exclude livestock from the small stretch (about 0.3 mile) of the San Pedro River found on the Brunckow Hill allotment. They also renewed their promise to complete AMPs for the SPRNCA’s four allotments. They said AMPs would be completed for the Babocomari and the Lucky Hills allotments by 1998, for the Brunckow Hill allotment by 1999, and the Three Brothers allotment by 2000.

The BLM also made a commitment to some mitigation measures that were more general. They promised to prohibit the use of chemical herbicides to kill brush in the riparian habitat along the San Pedro and Babocomari rivers. The Arizona BLM’s new S&Gs had recently been implemented, so they also promised to “adhere” to the S&Gs on all four of the allotments in the SPRNCA. And they promised to begin submitting annual reports to the USFWS about their progress in implementing these measures.

The BO noted that the BLM had recently completed a roundup that had removed 79 trespass cattle from the SPRNCA. But the BLM failed to keep most of their other promises. For example, according to the DRMP they have not completed any AMPs for the four SPRNCA allotments. And the DRMP says the BLM also hasn’t completed S&Gs assessments for them, although it says that partial assessments were completed for the Brunckow Hill, Three Brothers, and Lucky Hills allotments.

A review of those three partial assessments provides more disturbing information. The Brunckow Hill allotment’s 2008 assessment said the size of the allotment is 1,038 acres, while the DRMP says its 1,196 acres. But this is the least of the issues it raised. The assessment said that, “There are no standing interior cross-fences that delineate private/public land boundaries crossing this San Pedro River segment on the allotment.” In other words, the BLM hadn’t kept their promise to exclude cattle from the allotment’s small BLM-owned portion of the San Pedro River. (The Analysis of the Management Situation Report that accompanied the DRMP says the fences were in place by 2012.)

It also said that a proper functioning condition (PFC) assessment was completed on this stretch of the river in 2006. (PFC assessments are widely used to help determine the ecological health of riparian areas.) The Brunckow Hill PFC assessment showed this stretch of the river was Functional At Risk with a downward trend. Despite these issues, the allotment’s S&Gs assessment said the Riparian-Wetland Sites standard was being met. This wasn’t mentioned in the DRMP. The assessment also said the Upland Sites standard was being met, even though the BLM had monitored just one key area on the entire allotment.

The BLM also used only one key area in the 2008 assessment of the Three Brothers allotment to determine it was meeting the Upland Sites standard. The 2009 assessment for the Lucky Hills allotment said the entire ranch included 9,448 acres of BLM land. If some of these BLM acres are outside the boundaries of the SPRNCA, it might explain why the BLM’s acreage numbers for this allotment don’t add up. This assessment used just two key areas to make the determination that the Upland Sites standard was being met. The Three Brothers and the Lucky Hills assessments both made the dubious claim that because the allotments were meeting the Upland Sites standard, they were automatically meeting the Desired Resource Conditions standard. This was not included in the DRMP.

As for the Babocomari allotment, the DRMP says that no “formal” S&Gs assessment has been completed. However, on August 4, 2000, the BLM released a proposed decision to issue a regular 10-year grazing lease for the allotment. (They had been using annual authorizations before this.) The proposed decision included no details about the livestock management situation on the allotment, but it claimed that an S&Gs assessment had recently been completed that showed “resource conditions meet applicable standards” and “no further changes in the current operation are required at this time.”

The proposed decision was protested by Forest Guardians because the BLM hadn’t used the NEPA public planning process to analyze management alternatives for the allotment, as per the Rangeland Reform ’94 regulations. But the BLM rejected the protest in their October 13, 2000, final decision. They claimed that an allotment-specific NEPA analysis wasn’t required.

The Babocomari allotment is part of the Brookline Ranch and the Brookline Ranch CRMP was completed in 2007. It said there were 1,816 acres of BLM land on the ranch, although Table 3-46 in the DRMP says the allotment includes 2,025 BLM acres in the SPRNCA. The introduction to the ranch’s management plan said the current lessee purchased the allotment’s state grazing lease in 1988. This officially happened on November 3, according to State Land Department records. It also claims that the land exchange wherein the BLM acquired the allotment from the state happened after this. But that would have been impossible since the State Land Department had suspended exchanges in September due to the Arizona Supreme Court ruling. An examination of public records tells a different story. They indicate that the allotment’s lessee didn’t understand the difference between the land exchange wherein the BLM had previously acquired the allotment, and the subsequent bill to create the SPRNCA that was passed by Congress and signed into law on November 18, 1988. State Land Department records show the Babocomari land exchange occurred in 1987, which means the previous state grazing lessees had agreed to it. When the current lessee acquired the lease from them, Congress was in the process of approving the bill that created the SPRNCA. This legislation included a map that had been released months earlier which showed that the riparian preserve’s new boundaries included the Babocomari allotment.

The allotment’s lessee suspected that the allotment’s inclusion in the newly created SPRNCA might require the BLM to cancel or drastically alter his lease. He subsequently cooperated with the BLM in drafting an AMP in 1990 that said, “The Babocomari River and associated riparian zone will be fenced out from all grazing pressure for an indefinite time.” But that AMP was never fully implemented, and when the BLM issued their draft Safford District RMP in 1991, he sent a complaint to the BLM Director in Washington, D.C. He claimed that local BLM officials had repeatedly verbally promised him that the creation of the SPRNCA would have no effect on his ranching operation, and he wanted the draft RMP to be revised to guarantee it. The BLM’s response is very telling because it makes it clear that local BLM officials were determined not to apply the federal law that created the SPRNCA to the former state grazing lands.

The Brookline Ranch CRMP said the allotment would be divided into eight pastures and a best-pasture, deferred rotation grazing system would be used. The 2,550 pasture River pasture, which included the Babocomari River and the BLM’s allotment, could be used any time of the year, although it would “rarely” be used during the growing season from late May through mid-September, but it would be grazed “some part of these months every 4th year or so.”

This plan is similar to the one the BLM very briefly described for the Babocomari allotment in the biological evaluation they submitted to the USFWS in 1996. By all accounts, the existing lessee has significantly improved the condition of the Babocomari allotment from what it was when he acquired the lease. But his success should be measured by more than just how much the allotment has improved, it should also take into account if the allotment is currently meeting the wildlife habitat objectives of a nature preserve, because the allotment is part of the SPRNCA – not common rangeland.

The continued grazing in the Babocomari River’s riparian habitat is a cause for concern. According to the CRMP, the lessee has typically limited it from May through September. But April through October is the summer growing season in southern Arizona. And the fact that the BLM’s Babocomari allotment grazing lease only permits up to 15 head of cattle yearlong is misleading. The Brookline Ranch is a mixture of private, state, and BLM land, so the ranch’s entire herd is about 100 head of cattle. The CRMP said the River pasture is 2,550 acres, which means there could be about 25 head per acre in the pasture, provided they were evenly distributed – which they wouldn’t be. This could put a lot of cattle in the allotment’s riparian areas.

Furthermore, the CRMP didn’t include any riparian utilization standards and allowed a maximum annual upland forage utilization rate of up to 50%, which is too high for the SPRNCA. It also said the lessee had used a chemical herbicide called Spike, which contains tebuthiuron, to kill brush in order to create more herbaceous forage for his cattle. According to the attached map, the pastures where it was used appeared to be away from the riparian areas. But the EPA has issued warnings that tebuthiuron has a great potential for groundwater contamination, due to its high water solubility and long persistence in the soil. And it can prevent the growth of all vegetation in an area for several years after its application.

The USFWS issued an update to their 1997 biological opinion on the BLM’s local grazing program on May 21, 2012. It included mandatory new conservation measures the BLM was required to implement in order to protect the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher, a bird that depends upon riparian habitat. Livestock were required to be excluded from suitable or potential flycatcher habitat from April 1 through October 30, and the consumption of cottonwood and willow tree shoots reachable by cattle could not exceed 30 percent. The Babocomari and Brunckow Hill allotments were identified as having flycatcher habitat.

The Brookline Ranch CRMP did not comply with these new requirements. It allowed grazing along the Babocomari River in April and October, along with any other time it was deemed necessary by the grazing lessee. It also allowed an annual forage utilization amount that was 67 percent higher than 30 percent. There is no indication in the DRMP that the ranch’s management plan was revised to comply with these new requirements.

A PFC assessment was subsequently conducted on the lower Babocomari River in October 2013. According to the Analysis of the Management Situation Report, the PFC assessment found that most of it was Functioning At Risk with a downward trend due to several factors, including watershed condition, unauthorized livestock grazing, and upstream land use. The assessment documented that; “bank and floodplain vegetation in the lower reach showed evidence of disturbance from livestock trampling and foraging. Bank extensions had been trampled to the extent that plants and root mats were inadequate to support PFC, cattle trailing appeared to have caused cut-off channels, and trampling had further loosened soil where cover was poor. Many young cottonwoods were in a shrubby form, indicating ongoing and heavy foraging.” The assessment apparently didn’t identify if the damage had been caused by cattle that belonged to the Babocomari allotment’s lessee, or by trespass cattle. But the grazing that’s permitted in this riparian area could not have improved the situation. There is no indication that the BLM subsequently implemented a livestock management change during the following 24 months in order to improve the river’s condition, as required by the Arizona S&Gs.

The USFWS had based their 2012 biological opinion upon the descriptions the BLM had given them of the ongoing livestock management situations on the Gila District’s grazing allotments. Those descriptions raise questions.

In regards to the Babocomari allotment, Table 4 in the 2012 BO indicates that the BLM told the USFWS that there was a riparian exclosure on Babocomari River in the Babocomari allotment – but there isn’t. And the BO said the BLM claimed the allotment was meeting the Riparian-Wetland Sites standard, but the 2013 PFC assessment described above showed that it wasn’t. Also, Table 3 in the BO showed the allotment was meeting the Uplands Sites and Desired Resource Conditions standards. But Table 2 in the BO shows that 1,000 of the Babocomari allotment’s 1,816 acres are in poor condition, and the other 816 are only in fair condition – with a static trend. Furthermore, according to the DRMP, no formal S&Gs assessment has ever been completed for the Babocomari allotment.

Regarding the small stretch of the San Pedro River on the Brunckow Hill allotment, the 2012 BO said it was meeting the Riparian-Wetland Sites standard, but according to the DRMP, no S&Gs assessment of this particular riparian area has ever been completed.

The information the BLM provided to the USFWS about the Three Brothers allotments is also contradictory. The DRMP said the 2008 assessment found the allotment was meeting the Upland Sites standard. But Table 3 in the 2012 BO said an assessment had not been completed, and Table 2 showed that most of the allotment was in poor condition with a static trend.

The BLM’s management of the former state grazing lands obviously doesn’t inspire any confidence they would do a good job of managing increased in grazing on the SPRNCA. They have never completed NEPA analyses for the four grazing allotments, and the information about them included in the DRMP is inadequate to meet this requirement. They have also never implemented any AMPs or fully completed any Arizona Standards of Rangeland Health and Guidelines for Grazing Administration assessments for them. Additionally, there are questions about the BLM’s compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

Trespass Cattle

The BLM’s history of proficiency, or lack thereof, in keeping trespass cattle out of the San Pedro and Babocomari rivers should also be considered. The problem was so bad in 1996 that a trespass cattle roundup was the first mitigation measure they implemented in response to the lawsuit that was filed against them by the Center for Biological Diversity. It was mentioned again in the 2012 biological opinion and was still a problem in 2013 when the PFC assessment for the lower Babocomari River was completed. And by many accounts, it’s still an issue. But despite the persistence of this problem, there is only one reference to trespass livestock in the DRMP, and it only says that sometimes it happens when gates are left open by recreationists.

The BLM’s history of managing livestock on the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area only matters, however, if grazing is going to be permitted to continue. The law that created the SPRNCA said only those uses that “will further the primary purposes for which the conservation area is established” shall be allowed. It explained the SPRNCA was established, “In order to protect the riparian area and the aquatic, wildlife, archeological, paleontological, scientific, cultural, educational, and recreational resources of the public lands surrounding the San Pedro River in Cochise County, Arizona.”

I don’t see how livestock grazing can protect a desert riparian area. The BLM shouldn’t expand grazing in this riparian preserve, as they are proposing to do in their Preferred Alternative. Instead, they should end grazing on the four allotments they obtained in exchanges with the state. The only alternative in the DRMP that does that is the one the BLM has labeled Alternative D. I suggest it could be renamed the Legal Alternative.


The BLM’s deadline for submission of public comments on their proposal for the SPRNCA is September 27, 2018.


On September 21, 2018, the former director of the Arizona BLM, Dean Bibles, submitted comments on the DRMP that severely criticized the BLM’s Preferred Alternative.

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