Outraged Conservationists Looking to Sue National Park Service Over Wandering Cattle Problem

by Emily Morgan
Photo by: Craig Zerbe

Several environment agencies are potentially pursuing legal action against the National Park Service regarding cattle trespassing in the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.

According to reports, three environmental groups have announced they intend to sue the agency. They’re going after the NPS for permitting cows to wander into the Jemez Mountains preserve. The groups say the cattle intrude on protected species and damage the habitat.

This week, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, and Caldera Action filed a notice they plan to file a lawsuit. They cite the Endangered Species Act.

According to documents, the groups allege the agency failed to repair a fence on the preserve. As a result, herds are gaining access and trampling meadows crucial to at least three at-risk species.

Officials counted nearly 160 cattle in the Valles Caldera, a 90,000-acre piece of land created by an ancient volcano that erupted.

The caldera was part of a working cattle ranch for over a century. The federal government purchased the property in 2000 for $101 million.

For years, officials debated whether to focus on recreation or preservation.

Finally, in 2015, the preserve received more protections that prohibited cattle grazing. Its jurisdiction was given to the National Park Service.

Conservationists also argue that the cattle’s movements into the preserve are increasing risks to the area’s endangered salamander, the Nex Mexico meadow jumping mouse, and the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

National Park Service and environmental agencies clash over fencing problem

“By not fixing the fence, removing the cattle and compelling ranchers to contain their cattle, the National Park Service is ignoring the rules for the preserve and letting cows roam freely with no monitoring in environmentally sensitive areas,” said Madeleine Carey, a conservation specialist for WildEarth Guardians.

She added: “Where these cows are is not authorized for any kind of livestock grazing, in part because it’s such a sensitive riparian area.”

Carey also said that failing to track the trespassing cows makes it challenging to hold the Park Service and cattle owners accountable. In addition, she noted cattle could pose dangers to species beyond those mentioned in the lawsuit.

According to Carey, the cows also defecate into a creek that connects to the Jemez River, a source of drinking water for downstream users.

Valles Caldera spokesman Dave Krueger said the Park Service has been working to fix the issue.

According to Krueger, the agency has fixed about half of the downed fence but has run into problems because its contractors can’t find workers. At the same time, he added, the agency cannot find wranglers to corral the cattle.

At this time, the Park Service notifies the Forest Service when invading cattle are found, identifying the brands and tags. “Ultimately, these cattle are from Forest Service permittees,” Krueger said. “They’re coming from the grazing allotments on the Forest Service side.”