Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, November 4, 2014

Contact: Jay Lininger, (928) 853-9929

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Arizona, New Mexico River Snakes From Grazing

More Than 170 Allotments Challenged on Six National Forests

PHOENIX— The Center for Biological Diversity notified the U.S. Forest Service today of its intent to sue the agency under the Endangered Species Act over its livestock grazing program, which threatens two federally protected aquatic snakes. The snakes’ decline reflects the declining health of rivers throughout the Southwest. 

The notice faults the Forest Service for failing to consult federal biologists on effects to the snakes of more than 170 grazing permits in the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Coronado, Prescott and Tonto national forests in Arizona, as well as the Gila National Forest of New Mexico.

“Livestock grazing on our national forests is a serious threat to these beautiful animals and the rivers they need to survive,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist at the Center. 

The narrow-headed garter snake and the northern Mexican garter snake each gained “threatened” status last summer following a landmark 2011 settlement by the Center to speed protection decisions for 757 imperiled animals and plants across the country. 

Livestock grazing is a primary cause of the snakes’ precipitous decline over the past few decades, because cattle trample stream banks, consume riparian vegetation essential to cover snakes from predators, and degrade water quality. Other sources of habitat destruction threatening the snakes include water withdrawals, groundwater depletion, agricultural and urban sprawl, and spread of nonnative species. The snakes are now limited to small, isolated populations. 

Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to protect more than 400,000 acres of critical habitat for the two snakes along the Agua Fria, Gila, Salt, San Pedro, Santa Cruz and Verde rivers and major tributaries. That designation is expected to be finalized in 2015.

The threatened snakes cannot afford further delay of biological reviews required to ensure their protection from livestock grazing.

“These animals have been in real trouble for many years,” Lininger said. “Time is of the essence, because grazing in a single year can wipe them out at any location.”

The narrow-headed garter snake is unique for having a long, narrow head that is believed to be an adaption to enhance its ability to hold its position in flowing water and reduce drag when the snake is striking prey. The snake forages along streamside banks and among boulders within streams. It is typically found in well-lit, cool, clear, rocky streams and also uses upland areas adjacent to permanent water for hibernation, basking and cover from predators. It persists at only about 40 sites throughout its range in the Gila Basin. 

The northern Mexican garter snake is olive colored with three yellow stripes running the length of its body and a light-colored crescent extending behind the corners of its mouth. It is most abundant along intermediate-sized streams with year-round water flow and upland vegetation of cottonwood, willow, mesquite and grasses. It persists at fewer than 30 sites throughout its U.S. range and is thought to be more abundant, but not more secure, in Mexico, where threats to its remaining habitat are largely uncontrolled. 

“Garter snakes are important to river ecosystems as mid-level predators and as food for birds of prey,” said Lininger. “Their extinction would have broad ecological consequences, in addition to being a tragedy in its own right.”

The Center has 60 days after filing today’s notice before it may bring suit against the Forest Service in federal court.

In 2011 the Center and Service reached a settlement to speed protections for all the species on the candidate waiting list as of 2010, as well as a host of other species previously petitioned for protection. To date 139 plants and animals have received protection as a result of the agreement, and another 13 have been proposed for protection.

Read more about the Center’s work to save the narrow-headed garter snake here

Learn more about the Center’s work to save the northern Mexican garter snake here.

Read more about the Center’s work to restore rivers in the Southwest here

Learn about the Center’s advocacy to reform grazing practices on public lands here.


The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.  Visit us at

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