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Yearslong battle over trespassing cows on Valles Caldera triggers lawsuit

Trespassing cattle at Valle Toledo pictured July 2022.
Courtesy Cyndi Tuell
Trespassing cattle at Valle Toledo pictured July 2022.

The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are at the center of a lawsuit put forward by several conservation groups accusing the federal government of failing to protect endangered species on the Valles Caldera Preserve.

Environmentalists allege that livestock are trespassing on the protected area and destroying crucial riparian habitat.

On Tuesday, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, and Caldera Action filed the suit after what they say is years of inaction and “band-aid” fixes by the Forest Service to prevent illegal cattle grazing. Except in limited areas during select times of the year, cow grazing is prohibited on the northern New Mexico preserve.

The Arizona and New Mexico Director for the Western Watersheds Project Cyndi Tuell said the Caldera has historically been overgrazed.

“The Valles Caldera is an amazing place and it is a landscape in recovery,” Tuell said. “Species are returning, and species populations are increasing, but this trespass livestock grazing is impeding that recovery, and actually could push some species off the face of the planet.”

Some of those threatened or endangered species include the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the Jemez Mountains salamander.

Petitioners want the federal government to fix damaged barbed wire fences that are supposed to keep the cattle out, according to the lawsuit. They are also seeking a change to pasture boundaries and rotations so that cows are not feeding on the edge of the Valles Caldera.

The problem of trespassing cattle has gotten so bad that, earlier this year, the Service resorted to professional cow wranglers to help round them up.

Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service both declined an interview or to provide comment on the litigation. However, the Forest Service has committed to spending around $1 million to repair and reconstruct some of the problem fencing.

Tuell acknowledges that fence maintenance and other means of keeping the Valles Caldera free from trespass cattle is expensive. Sheproposes increasing grazing fees to cover the costs.

“The fee is decades old,” she said. “It's $1.35 to graze a cow and a calf for a month. I challenge you to find another animal you could feed for $1.35. Maybe a goldfish?” 

The problem isn’t isolated to the Valles Caldera. Tuell said she sees trespass cattle on protected lands across the U.S. West, and wants to see federal and state agencies step up to protect the habitats of dwindling wildlife populations, as mandated by law in the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973.

The federal agencies have yet to respond to the suit, which conservationists have threatened to file for several years.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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