Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: NORTH AMERICA: Page 6

     The United States has set aside sizeable portions of its deserts as national parks, national monuments and national wildlife refuges, as well as vast acreage administered by the Bureau of Land Management.  Lands that are administered by the National Park Service as parks, preserves or monuments are far better preserved than the national wildlife refuges or the BLM land.  Death Valley National Monument, for example, an enormous area in southern California, protects a huge area with its native vegetation, and the unique oases harboring endangered pupfish as well as other endangered species such as Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis).  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and Big Bend National Park in west Texas protect endangered endemic cactuses and other rare species of the Sonoran Desert.  Both are scenically breathtaking, with backdrops of jagged mountains.  The newly created Mojave National Preserve in southern California covers 1.4 million acres and was the result of decades of lobbying to preserve this unique area.  Some cattle grazing and some other types of potentially destructive activities will still be allowed (Wilkinson 1996), but they are gradually being phased out of this preserve, as well as Death Valley National Park (Wilkinson 2000).
     Outside the protected areas, however, the Sonoran Desert, with its great diversity of flora and fauna, is gradually being destroyed by residential and urban development. The city of Phoenix, Arizona, for example, has grown dramatically, now numbering 1 million people and spreading more than 469 square miles (Egan 1996a).  It is using up precious water reserves through diversion projects.  One, the Central Arizona Project, diverted water from the Colorado and dried up other rivers where Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) once nested, eliminating entire riparian ecosystems for the sake of the new city-dwellers and cotton agribusiness.  Endemic cactuses fall to the bulldozer, and many wildlife species have become threatened by the new development.  The Arizona Republic newspaper began a series, "An Acre an Hour," on the disappearance of the Sonoran Desert in 1993, and in the following three years, it documented the destruction of 25,000 acres of this fragile habitat (Egan 1996a).
     Grazing is allowed at about 36 national parks and preserves, causing conflicts between wildlife conservation and private interests (Wilkinson 2000).  Livestock is allowed to graze as a result of heavy pressure from western Congressmen (Wilkinson 2000).  Riparian, or riverside environments, are crucial to the wildlife of these regions, and this type of habitat has been obliterated in hundreds of miles of western waterways after heavy trampling by cattle and sheep.  Cottonwood and willow tree groves provide food and shelter for wildlife, and their shade cools the water for trout and other cold-water fish. These streamside trees should be zealously protected. The upper San Pedro River in south-central Arizona contains the largest surviving expanse of broadleaf riparian forest in the Southwest (Christensen 1999).  It represents a beautiful oasis in surrounding desert, home to rare Willow Flycatchers (Empidonax traillii), warblers, hawks, and kingfishers; a pair of beavers has been released into the river in the hopes that they would create a marshy pond of willow thickets that the flycatchers prefer.  In spite of careful management of this first riparian national conservation area by the Bureau of Land Management, including fencing to keep cattle away, the entire habitat is drying up from over-pumping of water for nearby towns and an Army base (Christensen 1999).  Cottonwoods and willows are already starting to die, and within the next decade, half the trees along the river are expected to die.  Since Arizona does not regulate its water, which is cheap and available, there may be no way to keep this patch of green from disappearing.
     At least eight state fish in the West are endangered as a result of grazing.  Overall, grazing threatens some 340 species (Wilkinson 2000), and its effects are even more pronounced in land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.  Forest Service land is used to graze cattle and sheep as well, resulting in many battles between ranchers and environmentalists who try to limit the number of livestock or remove them altogether. Some ranchers are responding to the environmental complaints and are restoring damaged rangeland, allowing grassland to rest and providing alternate water supplies for livestock.  New Mexico and Colorado have "grass bank" programs to restore grazing land, a program applauded by scientists as well as conservationists (Blakeslee 2000).
     Some ranchers are uncooperative, however, and some environmental organizations believe that grazing is antithetical to proper range management and forest health (Blakeslee 2000).  Two conservation organizations have sued to stop all grazing on public lands until federal officials can prove that endangered species are being protected from the destruction of their habitats (Blakeslee 2000).  Over the past few decades, small-scale ranching has ceased to be profitable in spite of grazing fees set so low that the parks spend many times more money to maintain the grazing allotments than they receive in fees (Wilkinson 2000). 
      Ranchers have even received permission to erect fences within the borders of some national parks, blocking wildlife migration routes.  The United States Congress is considering taking conservation easements on private ranchland adjoining national parks to protect wildlife in Grand Teton National Park (Wilkinson 2000). 
     When many of these parks were established, grazing was considered a legitimate use of the parks by Congress, and they were gazetted under these conditions.  In spite of this, National Park Service personnel have been able to invoke various laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, to force withdrawal of cattle; in some cases, ranchers are compensated for their allotments.  The National Park Service is sponsoring a report on park grazing issues that may form the basis for a management policy to reestablish the parks in their primary purpose of protecting the land intact for future generations.

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