Mr. Meadow Jumping Mouse goes to Washington

MOUSE MAELSTROM: Listing the meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species has led to a battle between environmentalists and New Mexico ranchers that went all the way to Capitol Hill Thursday.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The battle over the meadow jumping mouse moved Thursday from New Mexico to Capitol Hill.

Ranchers who complain the federal government is acting with a heavy hand to protect the mouse appeared in a subcommittee hearing conducted by the House Natural Resources Committee.

Among the New Mexico contingent was a member of a hunting and fishing group who defended the U.S. Forest Service.

“They are abiding by the law,” Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said of the Forest Service, which has reinforced a gate to keep out cattle along a creek in Otero County and is considering a 4-foot-high fence in a meadow in the Santa Fe National Forest near Los Alamos.

At issue is trying to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse, listed earlier this summer as endangered.

“What’s good for the meadow jumping mouse is also good for big game,” VeneKlasen said.

But the other witnesses called before the subcommittee told a different story.

Jose Varela Lopez, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association said his family has ranched in New Mexico since the 1600s. He accused the federal government of going overboard, accusing officials of trying to “extinguish the customs and culture of our country’s land-based people.”

CRITIC: New Mexico rancher Mike Lucero speaking before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee Thursday.

Mike Lucero, a rancher fighting the proposed fence accused the Forest Service of mismanagement. “If we’ve been overgrazing, why have they not told us that we have?” Lucero asked, pointing to a photo of the Rio Cebollo creek that runs through a grassy meadow.

Lucero claimed that Forest Service officials are overreacting because they fear getting sued by WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group with an office in Santa Fe.

“We have filed a notice of intent,” Bryan Bird, Wild Places Program director at WildEarth Guardians, told New Mexico Watchdog after the hearing.

Bird said the Forest Service would have to take major steps to improve the mouse’s habitat, anyway. “The Forest Service is bound by the Endangered Species Act to take precautions to make sure the mouse doesn’t go extinct. We’re just telling them, you have to do your job.”

The Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, conducted the hearing, called, “Threats, Intimidation and Bullying by Federal Land Managing Agencies.”

DEFENDING THE FEDS: Garrett VeneKlasen of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation at a House subcommittee hearing Thursday.

The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, said he worried the hearings would be “an echo chamber of complaints and hand-wringing” by critics of the federal government. He said he wished representatives of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management were invited to give their side of the story.

The only New Mexico lawmaker at the hearing, Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, sided with the ranchers. “The arrogance and the bullying by the federal government must stop,” he said at the start of the hearing.

It’s not clear whether Thursday’s hearing will prompt further congressional action, but it seemed clear each side sees the controversy in a very different way.

“Our watersheds have been degraded,” VeneKlasen said. “Our wetlands in the West are broken.”

“The reason we’re here with poor watersheds and fire is mismanagement by the federal agencies,” Lucero said.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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