The U.S. Forest Service has put ranchers and others in northern New Mexico on notice that it wants to put up fences as soon as possible on a portion of the Santa Fe National Forest to protect an endangered mouse found in moist, forested areas of the state, as well as parts of Arizona and Colorado.
The plan, outlined in a letter received by ranchers Thursday, calls for fencing that would keep livestock out and a closure order that would prevent people from camping along stretches of the lower Rio Cebolla, near Fenton Lake in the Jemez Mountains.
Environmentalists and federal biologists say now that the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse is on the endangered species list, its streamside habitat needs to be protected.
The mouse needs dense vegetation that’s at least a couple of feet tall.
“This vegetation is important for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse because it provides vital food sources, as well as the structural material for building nests that are used for shelter from predators,” forest officials said in their letter.
Grass that tall has become nearly nonexistent in New Mexico and other Southwestern states that have been hamstrung by persistent drought. Water sources, even those in forested areas, have been dwindling, further complicating matters for the mouse, federal land managers and ranchers.
The threat of fencing has drawn fire from ranchers in the drought-stricken states that are home to the mouse. They say cutting off water supplies to livestock and potential effects for downstream users could devastate some rural communities.
Some New Mexico ranchers are headed to Washington, D.C., later this month for a congressional hearing on the matter.
The agency said previously it had not made any decisions regarding the fencing, but the letter issued this week detailed plans to put off limits 120 acres along the lower Rio Cebolla.
A total of four enclosures of different sizes would be built to keep livestock out. The closure order to keep recreational users from camping in the area would be prepared as soon as possible.
The forest has given the public until Aug. 10 to comment on the plan.
Officials say the project will not likely require any further environmental assessment since it does not involve herbicides or require road building.
Ranchers argue the project could have significant financial effects and should be reviewed before any action takes place.
Bryan Bird with the Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians said the Forest Service has used fencing for years to protect habitat and the recent protests amount to a “false alarm.”
The group has supported efforts in other forests to keep areas fenced for the mouse, including in Otero County, where elected leaders called on the sheriff to do what was necessary to open the fenced areas.
Caren Cowen, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association, said Thursday that ranchers will continue to fight to protect their livelihoods. The combination of drought and political pressures has forced many to whittle their herds, resulting in higher beef prices, she said.
“This action and others like it are literally taking food off the tables of Americans,” she said.