BLM To Continue To Permit Livestock Degradation to San Pedro National Conservation Area

Changes in the riparian vegetation along the San Pedro River before and after livestock removal from the main river corridor. 

The Bureau of Land Management released its Environmental Assessment for livestock grazing in the San Pedro National Conservation Area (SPNCA) in Arizona.

The BLM has decided that the rancher’s interests trump the public interest in protecting the National “Conservation” Area.

The San Pedro is one of the few perennial streams in southern Arizona. As a result, the 47-mile-long San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPNCA) is one of the most intact riparian cottonwood gallery and mesquite bosque forests left in the Southwest.

The San Pedro cottonwood gallery forests are among the most intact in southern Arizona and are a mecca for bird watchers. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Babocomari and San Pedro Rivers are both eligible and suitable for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System under the recreational classification.

Riparian areas are the thin green line of water-dependent vegetation along western waterways. Though they make up only 1% of most western lands, they typically provide habitat for 70-80% of the wildlife in the West.

It is home to 400 species of birds and 80 mammals—one of the highest mammal diversity in the country. The threatened and endangered species in the SPNCA include willow flycatcher, desert pupfish, Gila topminnow, northern Mexican garter snake, yellow-billed cuckoo, and Arizona eryngo.

Despite this unique and very special values, the BLM sees fit to allow domestic livestock grazing on four allotments within the SPNCA.

The yellow is BLM land, blue is state land, pick military lands, and white is private. 

The SPRNCA Allotments encompass 51,514 acres of BLM, Arizona State Trust (referred to as state land), and private lands. Two of the allotments (Babocomari and Brunckow Hill) include riparian areas of the San Pedro and Babocomari Rivers, which encompass 208 acres of riparian area on BLM-administered land.

All four allotments include BLM-administered lands inside (6,903 acres) and outside (9,019 acres) the SPRNCA boundaries. Currently, 1,540 animal unit months (AUMs) are available for grazing across the existing BLM leases for the four allotments.

As it does almost everywhere, the BLM refuses to put the public interest first and will allow what can only be accurately called vandalism of the public landscape.


The BLM acknowledges in its Environmental Assessment that cattle grazing threatens the integrity of the riparian area. The BLM recognizes that livestock will impact the region by consuming perennial grass and other forage plants, trampling vegetation and soil, reducing vegetative cover in areas where livestock concentrate, and contributing to E. coli levels in the Babocomari and San Pedro Rivers.

Cattle grazing removes streamside vegetation, break down banks, widen streams (increasing temperatures) and pollute the water with their manure. Photo George Wuerthner

The BLM minimizes the potential impacts of livestock grazing by noting that within the analysis area, there are 12,643 acres of riparian habitat. Of this area, 425 acres are within allotment boundaries, which represents 3.4% of the total analysis area. Except for the Babocomari Allotment, grazing would take place outside of riparian areas. However, it acknowledges that up to 135 (1% of acres in analysis area) acres of riparian habitat on the Babocomari Allotment would potentially be impacted by grazing.

But is any potential damage to riparian habitats acceptable given how rare such habitat is within southern Arizona? Apparently the BLM believes that some damage is OK.

As far as uplands are concerned, the BLM acknowledges that grazing will impact vegetation, consumption of forage and hiding cover for native wildlife as well as potentially creating bare soil, compacting soils, and other impacts.

The BLM says that wildlife are “mobile” and thus can move away from upland habitats degraded by livestock. Photo George Wuerthner 

However, the dismisses this impact by saying wildlife because “wildlife is mobile” and can accommodate to cattle by using other parts of the allotment.

The BLM argues that the riparian habitat that could be damaged by livesstock grazing is limited by their management plan, thus justifies on-going livestock use.

To reduce (not eliminate these impacts), the BLM calls for adaptive management, a code word for permitting on-going degradation.

The riparian cottonwood gallery forest of the San Pedro River is one of the primary reasons for its designation as a National Conservation Area. Photo George Wuerthner 

The final plan calls for a potential 50% reduction in livestock. But since livestock are drawn to the shade and water of riparian areas, fewer animals can still do a significant amount of damage to these critical wildlife areas.

Also included in the final proposal is a plan to build 15 miles of new fence to “manage” livestock in the Babocomari River area. The fence, of course, will be constructed with taxpayer money to keep private livestock from doing as much damage to our land.

However, “trespass” livestock continue to invade the “closed” areas, and the BLM does little to prevent such illegal use of the area.

The BLM acknowledges that cattle concentrations around water “developments” will do damage to the landscape. But as throughout the document, it minimizes these impacts and suggests that they are acceptable.

Another issue is water pollution. Livestock grazing is allegedly a source of E. coli pollution in the SRNCA.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s latest assessment report shows that portions of San Pedro are contaminated with E. coli. The water quality report in the study area of the conservation area lists the reach of the San Pedro between Babocomari River and Dragoon Wash, as well as the portion of the river between the U.S-Mexico border and Charleston Road, as impaired due to E. coli exceedance.

The BLM plan calls for monitoring water quality. If cattle are identified as a source of pollution, cattle numbers may be reduced.

Adding insult to injury we taxpayers will be paying for all this management, monitoring, fencing, and water quality testing just to facilatate the use of public resources for private benefit.

The BLM has the gall to say adaptive management will be a “benefit” to the public because they claim it will “reduce” the damage from on-going livestock use.

To the BLM, if they can “reduce” the impacts of cattle, this is good enough to permit the continued vandalism of public resources. It is analogous to punching someone in the face ten times a day and then saying you will “benefit them by reducing it to five times a day.

The issue is that no one should have to tolerate being punched. It should be the same with public lands grazing. If any damage to public resources results from private business interests, livestock grazing should be terminated.

The San Pedro River is eligible for Wild and Scenic River designation. Such designation would add a degree of protection to the river corridor. Photo George Wuerthner

The SPNCA is a unique piece of public property. It has incredible biological values and should be given deference in any management decision. If there is any chance that private use of the area will compromise the unique values of San Pedro, the BLM should eliminate that use.

Once more the BLM has demonstrated that it is incapable of managing public lands for public values. Given the unique and important habitat values of the San Pedro River, a potential solution would be to eliminate all livestock use of the area and transfer management of the river to National Park Service which has a much better track record for preserving wildlife resources.

The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds have challenged the BLM’s decision and management of the SPNCA in the past and hopefully will appeal this decision.


  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    No different than the destruction & pollution at Pt Reyes NATIONAL PARK! Acknowledgement of the damage caused does no good if it isnt STOPPED!
    How long is this kind of destruction & damage going to be allowed by GOVERNMENT AGENCIES? BLM, NPS, NF? How long?

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Unfortunately, the laws under which these agencies have to operate are not as strong as they should be. For example, the National Environmental Quality Act (NEPA) just requires that agencies adequately “inform” the public about what they’re going to do. As I heard a federal judge say in court, under NEPA they may nuke a National Forest as long as they tell us they’re going to do so.

      To make matters worse, decisions like this are political, not based on ecology or wildlife biology. I’ve talked many rangers who hate all this kind of stuff, but they don’t make the decisions, politically-appointed bureaucrats do.

  2. JohnR Avatar

    Worst place in the world to allow cattle grazing!

  3. Cindy Kreiman Avatar
    Cindy Kreiman

    We need to respect the lives of these horses and other wildlife this is their land home too. We are not the only ones that have rights. We are killing the land air and water beings that share this beautiful Earth with us to a point where we will not come back from and we will pay the consequences

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Humans as a whole will deserve what they get. It’s the land, air, water, sky, and other species about whom I’m concerned.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        It’s difficult to have sympathy. And of course, this can all be offset with industrial wind and solar, so we can all have our cake and eat it too!

        I too wish that we could ever care about the interests of other life on earth as much as we do about ourselves. It’s where I am going to devote my time and resources.

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    This is just disgusting!!

  5. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    “The BLM has decided that the rancher’s interests trump the public interest in protecting the National “Conservation” Area.” The Bureau of Livestock and Mining strikes again.

    There shouldn’t be ANY livestock grazing from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific ocean. None, zero, zip, period. Western lands are far too dry and fragile to handle livestock grazing.

    Of course the BLM is going to allow grazing here, it’s what they always do. And while they deserve plenty of blame, there’s more than enough to go around in this country. As I’ve said many times, people who eat beef are ultimately responsible for this kind of thing. Beef is totally unnecessary and, I would argue, not even healthy for multiple reasons. Beef is the most harmful food people eat (aside from exotic foods like endangered species), and there’s just no excuse for eating it. But unfortunately, I don’t see anyone but me advocating for a beef boycott, which more than anything is what’s needed here.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Yes. Nothing makes me happier when someone asks me is to say that no, I do not contribute to this mess. Then you’ll get called a virtue signaler. Sigh. 🙂

      I also do think our leadership in Washington is more beef supportive than Democrats have been in the past.

  6. laurie Avatar

    The BLM and NPS are totally infested with the entitled, spoiled boys and girls of the ranching interests. They could not care less about Americans’ demands to protect our public lands along with wolves, grizzlies and mustangs. They need to be rooted out!

  7. karen langlais Avatar
    karen langlais

    This is public land that belongs to the people of the US and should be protected for the good of the environment! It should not serve one person to the detriment of the whole. Cattle are going out and use and destroy tremendous resources unless raised responsibly which these are not. Shame on you members of the BLM. You are destroying resources and getting paid TO PROTECT the public.

  8. John Montgomery Avatar
    John Montgomery

    BLM, unlike the Arizona State Land Dept, who merely try to gain as much income as possible from the land, has a difficult and confusing mission — much more difficult than, say, the Fish & Wildlife Service. To BLM, the easiest solution to their conflicting mission is to serve the concentrated interest of local paying ranchers rather than those of disparate non-consumptive, non-paying land users. If BLM were to charge ranchers the true value of grazing allotment, including environmental degradation, there would be few permit applications. That being unlikely, purchase of this land (or the grazing permits themselves) by a conservation organization may be a solution more effective than litigation


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner