New Mexico’s mouse war escalates

THE MOUSE THAT ROARED: The battle over protecting the meadow jumping mouse, recently listed as endangered, has pitted environmentalists and ranchers against the U.S. Forest Service.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s war over the meadow jumping mouse is escalating and moving ahead on multiple fronts.

Ranchers whose permits allow their cattle to graze in the Santa Fe National Forest object to a proposal to erect fencing covering 120 acres in a meadow where the mouse lives. They’re heading to Capitol Hill to plead their case to a House subcommittee.

At the same time, an environmental group instrumental in getting the mouse listed under the federal government’s Endangered Species Act filed paperwork last week to start the process of suing the U.S. Forest Service to protect the mouse’s habitat.

And the Forest Service is catching flak from both sides.

“The time for kind of compromise has long, long since past,” said John Horning, the executive director of WildEarth Guardians-NewMexico. “When a species is endangered, when a habitat is endangered, if anything, I would argue the Forest Service is moving too slowly, too cautiously … I don’t think the agency has any more excuses to keep waiting.”

“It’s the federal government that’s failed us,” said Mike Lucero, of New Mexico’s San Diego Cattleman’s Association and a member of a family of ranchers that has grazed the forest for more than 100 years. “They (the Forest Service) are trying to take the easy way out.”

Forest Service officials say they’re trying to strike a balance.

“What we’re doing is our affirmative responsibility to take care of the mouse, follow the law and, at the same time, assure that we can have a viable grazing program on national forest systems land,” said Robert Trujillo, the acting director of Wildlife, Fish and Rare Plants for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

But so far, neither the environmentalists nor the ranchers are happy.

Last Thursday, the ranchers got ticked off to learn the Forest Service sent a letter proposing to put up fencing in a meadow where the Rio Cebolla creek runs.

Citing concerns that grazing badly damages the habitat where the mice live, the Forest Service in its July 10 letter said it anticipates the fencing proposal falls under a “categorical exclusion” that allows it to skip normal assessment procedure.

THE CREEK IN QUESTION: The Rio Cebolla runs through a meadow in the Santa Fe National Forest, in the Jemez Mountains. The Forest Service is proposing to erect 5-foot-high fencing to keep cattle from grazing there in order to protect the meadow jumping mouse.

Gone was talk of putting up fencing that was 8-feet high that would have kept out most all wildlife from entering the mouse’s habitat. Instead, the Forest Service is calling for fencing that would be 5-feet high, with cables to keep out livestock only. (Click here to read the Forest Service letter.)

The ranchers say they’ve being singled out.

“It’s in black and white now, they’re targeting certain individuals,” Lucero said. “There’s other animals that use the same (area) … They’re targeting just cattle grazers.”

“They’re not being singled out,” Trujillo said. However, Trujillo has also said that “the elk and deer get in there, get water and get out. They don’t tend to lounge around and graze heavily. Cows will sit in there and graze.”

Lucero disagrees, saying that elk graze and lie down along the meadow at night.

At the opposite end of the battle, Horning insists the mouse’s habitat has been abused for years.

“It is badly overgrazed,” he said. “When the cows come off, the landscape comes back to life and surprises people who knew it only as it was grazed. I think the final arbiter of whether it was overgrazed will be, let’s look at how the land looks in a year or two when the fences go up and the cows are removed.”

In 2008 WildEarth Guardians submitted a petition seeking listing for the species and last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the mouse as endangered.

While no final decision on the fencing has been made by the Forest Service, the July 10 letter reiterates that since the meadow jumping mouse was listed earlier this year as an endangered species, federal agencies “must ensure that any action they fund, authorize, or carry out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species.”

“It’s not a final decision,” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog, “but it’s a pretty good indication that we need to get some fencing done in there.”

Lucero said he and the ranchers are not opposed to fencing but think the Forest Service is going overboard.

Lucero is heading to Washington, D.C. to appear before the House Public Lands and Environmental Regulations Subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, on July 24. He’ll be joined by New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and a commissioner from Otero County, which is involved in a similar dispute with the Forest Service over a gate that’s blocking cattle from drinking in a creek near the mouse’s habitat.

“We’re looking for a cooperative solution,” said Blair Dunn, one of the attorneys advising Lucero and the San Diego Cattleman’s Association.

Forest Service officials said Monday they were unaware of the congressional hearing until New Mexico Watchdog informed them.

“Why can’t we come to some kind of compromise and give (the mice) a couple of acres,” said Lucero. “But when you’re talking about taking the entire meadow to protect the mouse … we’re getting a one-sided outcome.”

WildEarth Guardians filed a notice of intent last Friday to initiate the lawsuit, aimed at protecting the mouse, which hibernates eight to nine months out of the year and is found in wet, forested areas in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

“If we want to laugh at, marginalize, overlook a mouse, we can do so,” Horning said, “but the message is about all the species that depend on these habitats. And it’s really a travesty that it requires endangered species protection to get the (Forest Service) to say that, oh this 1 percent of the land that’s important for clean water, that’s critical for recreational values, and that’s vital for all sorts of fish and wildlife species ought to be protected.”

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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