Caldera Action Joins Cattle Trespass Lawsuit

Santa Fe National Forest faces lawsuit for allowing trespass livestock into

Valles Caldera National Preserve

Lawsuit follows years of inaction by the Forest Service to prevent livestock from illegally entering the Preserve

SANTA FE, NM — WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, and Caldera Action are taking legal action against the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing livestock to illegally graze in the Valles Caldera National Preserve located in northern New Mexico. The lawsuit follows years of inaction by the Forest Service to prevent livestock authorized to graze on adjacent Forest Service lands from illegally entering the Preserve. The Preserve is managed by the National Park Service and does not currently authorize any cattle grazing.

Cattle have illegally entered the Preserve from neighboring Forest Service grazing allotments, damaging fish and wildlife habitat, water sources, and posing a risk to visitors to the Preserve for over a decade. Habitat for the endangered Jemez Mountain salamander, New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, and the threatened Mexican spotted owl have been damaged by the trespassing livestock, putting these species in jeopardy of extinction. 

“This has been going on too long and the impacts are getting worse. People who care about the Caldera are frustrated, especially when they see dozens of cattle wallowing in riparian areas and fens –  fragile ecosystems that are supposed to be protected,”  says Andrew Rothman, Wild Places Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Forest Service authorizes livestock grazing even when they know it leads to trespass on the neighboring Preserve and is pushing threatened and endangered species to the brink of extinction in the Caldera,”

More than 850 trespass cattle were observed on the Caldera in 2023. Because the Forest Service failed to ensure fences were functional and sufficient to prevent trespass prior to the grazing season this year, conservation organizations felt compelled to take their case to the courts. 

“We have asked the Forest Service and the Park Service to do something about these trespassing cows for nearly ten years,” said Tom Ribe, executive director of Caldera Action, a nonprofit focused on the Jemez Mountains. “The Park Service took action after our first Notice of Intent to Sue in 2022. While we appreciate that, it isn’t enough – we need the Forest Service to take responsibility for the cattle that are from their grazing program. They need to keep those cattle on Forest Service lands according to their agreements with the ranchers.” said Ribe. 

After the Park Service documented natural resource damage in the Preserve caused by livestock coming from Forest Service allotments, the Forest Service failed to make changes to its grazing authorizations. Neither the Forest Service nor the Fish and Wildlife Service re-initiated consultation – a requirement under the Endangered Species Act – to analyze if and how trespass livestock grazing is harming threatened and endangered species. 

“When livestock run out of grass on the authorized allotments, they will find food elsewhere, and a poorly maintained or cut barbed wire fence won’t stop them from finding that food,” said Cyndi Tuell, Arizona and New Mexico director of Western Watersheds Project. “The Forest Service is responsible for putting these cows on the land. They need to be held accountable for their poor management decisions and refusal to enforce their own rules. When we have species so close to extinction like the Jemez Mountain salamander we need swift action, not agency foot-dragging. If they would simply do their job, we wouldn’t have to sue them,” said Tuell.  

WildEarth Guardians is represented by their Staff Attorney, Erin Hogan-Freemole, and Western Watershed Project’s Staff Attorney Megan Backsen represents Western Watersheds Project and Caldera Action. 

Photos  are available here. Photos from the most recent trespass report, in late May 2024, are available here

Background:

The 89,000-acre Valles Caldera was set aside as a National Preserve in the year 2000 to protect its unique ecosystems, headwaters, and thriving elk herds. The National Park Service and others have been attempting to restore the Preserve’s watersheds and wildlife habitat since the property was acquired. The Preserve’s purpose is to protect, preserve, and restore ecosystems and cultural landscapes within an outstanding example of a volcanic caldera for the purpose of education, scientific research, public enjoyment and use, and cultural continuity. 

Conservation groups and community members have urged federal land managers to protect wildlife habitat in the Preserve since it was created. The three groups taking legal action today filed Notices of Intent to sue in October 2022 and again in February 2024. In September 2023, the Park Service shared information about the impacts of trespass livestock with conservation groups, as well as the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Cattle enter the Valles Caldera from adjacent Santa Fe National Forest lands in large numbers. Throughout 2023, volunteers documented the condition of the northern boundary fence between National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service lands. They found the fence was inoperable, either from tree falls, lack of maintenance, or vandalism. The National Park Service replaced and maintained some fencing, but cattle trespass continued throughout the entire grazing season. 

Forest Service regulations limit grazing only to the lands identified in their specific grazing permits. Conservation groups have repeatedly asked the Forest Service to take action to repair, maintain and improve fences, and to modify grazing permits to prevent livestock from trespassing into the Preserve. Instead, the Forest Service has failed to enforce the terms of grazing permits when the cattle overgraze and trespass on neighboring lands. 

Park Service officials have called the Forest Service and individual ranchers to remove trespass cattle, but the cattle that are removed soon return and the process repeats itself while endangered species habitat is damaged.

In a response to the 2024 Notice of Intent to Sue filed in February of 2024, the Forest Service responded with their own letter indicating they would not take action to protect wildlife. The Forest Service stated that they do not authorize livestock trespass and are not responsible for damage in the Preserve. They place responsibility on the Park Service to maintain the fence between the Preserve and the Santa Fe National Forest. The Forest Service refuses to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about the impacts of the Forest’s grazing program on endangered species in the Preserve. 

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, conservation groups obtained evidence that the Forest Service knows its grazing allotments are overgrazed and damaging habitat for protected species on those authorized grazing allotments. The Forest Service has stated that it should consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service over those impacts, but continues to refuse to engage in that consultation. 

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