WATER WAR: The U.S. Forest Service has locked out cattle belonging to ranchers in Otero County, N.M., because it wants to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse. Photo from KVIA-TV.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
A dispute between ranchers, whose cattle were locked out of a water source in southern New Mexico, and the feds, who are trying to protect a rare mouse, continues.
Federal agents say the water is vital in protecting the mouse, which could soon be an endangered species.
The parties involved met for a “facilitated discussion” Friday morning at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque. The discussion included officials from Otero County representing the ranchers and about a dozen representatives of the federal government, including the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Justice.
No agreement was reached.
“Basically, the Forest Service said they don’t have the authority, and neither did DOJ or anyone at that meeting, to just allow the gate to be opened,” Blair Dunn, attorney for Otero County, told New Mexico Watchdog.
Acting U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Damon Martinez did not comment. Public affairs officer Elizabeth Martinez of the Department of Justice District of New Mexico office released a brief statement, saying “no resolution was reached” at Friday’s meeting.
The controversy marks another battle in the West between the federal government — which owns vast expanses of land in states such as New Mexico, Utah and Nevada — and local ranchers who graze their cattle.
In Otero County, officials at the U.S. Forest Service have fenced off access to creek water for the ranchers’ grazing cattle, hoping to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse, which is expected to be listed as an endangered species next month.
The Forest Service says it worries the cattle would damage 23 acres along the Agua Chiquita that includes a natural spring. Opponents say the federal government has no right to control access to the water for their cattle, thirsty from a long drought that has hit New Mexico.
The environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which has been lobbying to put the meadows jumping mouse on the endangered species list, sent a letter Friday before the meeting started Friday.
“There is an all-too-common misconception in some western rural communities that ranchers somehow have a ‘right’ to graze by the virtue of their grazing permits,” citing a number of court cases as well as the Enabling Act the state of New Mexico signed in 1910 before becoming the nation’s 47th state.
“Our national forests do not belong to a permittee who would like to exploit their resources or local politicians who would allow it,” WildEarth Guardians program director Bryan Bird said in the letter. “They belong to all Americans.”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Dunn said in a telephone interview. “In the past when we’ve had drought and problems, the Forest Service came and opened the gate … but they didn’t have any interest in doing that” Friday.
Before Friday’s meeting, the ranchers asked Sheriff Benny House to cut the locks. House attended the meeting Friday, but the next step is unclear.
Dunn said Otero County officials will look into filing criminal complaints and civil lawsuits against the feds, as well as asking Congress to study the issue.
The Otero County standoff comes one month after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy squared off against officials at the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy, who has repeatedly lost in court, tends his cattle on federal land. After the BLM tried to round up his cattle and sparked a protest, the BLM stopped the roundup and is considering what to do next.
“They (the federal agents at Friday’s meeting) don’t want to have a Bundy Ranch situation,” Dunn said. “But they wanted to try to push the county and the sheriff to tell their citizens to quiet down. That was what repeatedly came up was, ‘We really can’t promise to open the gate and we can’t really promise you anything to make things better, but we want you to help us and go down there and get everybody to be quiet .’ As much as anything it was said to the county, ‘You better quiet down or we’ll come after you.’”
Bird said in his letter: “The Forest Service is well within its right to completely restrict access the area and the water therein, a measure that WildEarth Guardians would support to ensure protection of the jumping mouse. Furthermore, such a complete restriction would be reasonable as it would apply to a meter 23 of the 28,850 acres (less than .1 percent of the grazing at issue), and there is other water access therein that the permittee can use for cattle.”
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