The Verde River in Arizona, which flows from headwaters southwest of Flagstaff to the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation northeast of Phoenix, is just one of the state’s waterways highly polluted by cattle excretion. Known for its diverse ecosystems, the river is home to endangered wild reptiles like the northern Mexican garter snake, birds like the yellow-billed cuckoo and southwestern willow flycatcher, and fish like the loach minnow and spikedace.
More than half of the river falls under federal protections. Unfortunately, even wilderness areas have exemptions for cattle grazing. Although cattle are technically not allowed to bunch together along the river corridor even under these exemptions, this is the common behavior for these nonnative bovines. Riparian ecosystems containing cottonwood, willow, ash and box elder trees, for example, produce seedlings — cottonwood saplings are a favorite food for cattle to munch. But these trees are habitat for migratory birds, maintain ecosystem integrity during floods and prevent erosion.
Meanwhile, wildlife need clean waterways as much as human communities. Yet the Verde River, like many other waterways grazed by cattle, is anything but clean. A 2020 study by the Center for Biological Diversity assessed 145 miles of the waterway and its tributary. The study found cattle droppings in 70% of the river, even in critical habitat designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
There are solutions to these problems on both public and private land; however, that may include monitoring and fixing fences, ending upland grazing, establishing alternative water sources, reassessing compliance with public lands leases and rewilding programs and increasing vegetative cover and. Yet this study showed that some of these solutions were already required yet failing, such as fencing in disrepair or totally absent. Eliminating cattle from riparian areas on public lands would be a small step toward better policy.
Meanwhile the public is paying the federal government to manage lands and hold livestock operators accountable while advocacy groups are monitoring the failures of public lands agencies. The potential damage from mismanaged or unmanaged grazing can’t be overstated. Even well-managed systems continue to mean smaller herds monitored and assessed for ecological impacts on waterways. Particularly for watersheds in the desert, like the Verde River, clean water is a matter of life or death for native wildlife and ecosystems.
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