Groups sue BLM over grazing in Ariz. national monument

Posted: May 24, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, Greenwire
Sonoran Desert

Two environmental groups yesterday filed a lawsuit in a federal district court challenging the Bureau of Land Management's decision to allow livestock grazing in a half-million-acre national monument in Arizona, claiming the decision was based on a "deeply flawed pseudoscientific analysis."

The Western Watersheds Project and the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, arguing that BLM had ignored studies that found cows were damaging soils, reducing plant diversity and increasing weeds and non-native plants in the Sonoran Desert National Monument southwest of Phoenix.

The suit takes particular aim at BLM's livestock compatibility determination, which supported the agency's decision to allow grazing to continue on about 157,000 acres in the monument.

"The Obama Administration pledged to rely on science, but this plan is a clear case of agenda-driven decision-making where BLM arbitrarily lowered the land health objectives and ignored years of data and the conclusions of other researchers regarding the negative impacts livestock have on monument lands," Jon Marvel, WWP's executive director, wrote in an email yesterday. "All of these misrepresentations harm species such as the Sonoran desert tortoise, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, saguaro forests, and desert grasslands the Monument designation was supposed to protect."

A spokeswoman for BLM this morning said the agency was still reviewing the lawsuit and could not comment.

The monument was designated by President Clinton in January 2001 to preserve "a magnificent example of untrammeled Sonoran desert landscape."

Clinton's proclamation ordered grazing to be discontinued south of Interstate 8 and allowed it to continue north of the highway "only to the extent that the Bureau of Land Management determines that grazing is compatible with the paramount purpose of protecting the objects identified in this proclamation."

That's where the agency and the environmental plaintiffs appear to disagree.

"In light of the proclamation designating this area as a national monument, BLM no longer manages this area simply on a multiple use basis but instead must manage it primarily for the protection of the objects of interest identified in the proclamation," the lawsuit states.

Those objects include "rare patches of desert grassland" and plant diversity that supports the endangered Sonoran pronghorn and a robust population of desert bighorn sheep, among other mammals.

Moreover, the plaintiffs argue that Clinton's proclamation encourages less grazing in the monument, since it credits the removal of livestock in the Sand Tank Mountains area for "a rich diversity, density, and distribution of plants."

BLM's record of decision last September finalizing the new resource management plan for the monument eliminated grazing from about 92,000 acres of the monument.

Updating the monument's management plan has been a political challenge for BLM.

In late 2011, the agency was roundly criticized by sportsmen and gun rights groups for proposing to ban target shooting at the monument, which the agency argued had raised concerns over noise, public safety and resource impacts.

Under pressure from the National Rifle Association and a sportsman advisory council, the agency reversed course last May, reopening the lands to recreational shooting (E&ENews PM, May 11, 2012).

But that decision drew protests from six environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society, National Trust for Historic Preservation and Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, which argued that target shooting could threaten monument visitors as well as the plants and resources it was designated to protect (Greenwire, July 17, 2012).

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