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JEMEZ MOUNTAINS – Poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
That’s precisely what more than a dozen New Mexico ranchers fear is happening now that the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse has been recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species requiring habitat protection.
Ranchers in northern New Mexico claim what’s being talked about – 8-foot-tall fences surrounding protected riparian areas where their cattle and wildlife go to water – is an overreaction to a threat of potential lawsuits and stems from a controversy over the same mouse in Otero County.
They also say the U.S. Forest Service is ramrodding protections through without consulting them, some of whom have been grazing first sheep, then cattle, on these same lands for five, going on six, generations.
“We’re not against it,” Orlando Lucero, whose family has ranched on land in the Jemez Mountains near Valles Caldera since the 1800s, said of designating the mouse as endangered. “If it’s endangered, let’s protect it. But let’s do it right. There’s not only one way to do it.”
And while ranchers say their livelihoods may be threatened, they shouldn’t be the only ones concerned. Anyone who hunts, fishes, or enjoys camping at the nearby San Antonio Campground will be impacted, they say.
In all, more than 190 linear miles of rivers and streams, or more than 15,000 acres, mostly in New Mexico but also in parts of Arizona and Colorado, are proposed to be designated as critical habitat for the mouse. Of that, 9,340 acres are on federal and state lands, and about 5,000 acres on private land.
Robert Trujillo, a deputy director with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwest Region, said it is bound by law to take necessary measures to protect the mouse and its habitat on public land. Those protections go into effect July 10.
“Starting then, we need to be sure any activity we’re authorizing doesn’t have a detrimental impact on (the mouse’s) habitat,” he said.
Trujillo said nothing has been decided yet and that the Forest Service is involving ranchers in considering how protected areas are managed. He said there’s still time for input and designated critical habitat areas won’t be finalized until this fall.
He added that there are ways – such as leaving gaps between fences and pumping water to areas outside the fence line – to allow cattle and wildlife access to streams.
“We are committed to the ranching community to find solutions,” he said.
Threat of legal action is driving changes
Some say it’s the threat of legal action that’s driving the changes.
In 2011, the Department of Interior reached a settlement with conservation groups WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity in U.S. District Court that led to more than 100 species gaining protections under the Endangered Species Act and another two dozen, including the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, proposed for listing.
The Fish and Wildlife Service denied kowtowing to conservation groups or reacting to legal threats. That agency, the Forest Service and other agencies work together in making these determinations, while the Forest Service is in charge of carrying them out on its lands.
Fish and Wildlife has stated that it already had determined prior to the court settlement agreement that the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse warranted listing as endangered. That decision, it added, was based on “the best available scientific and commercial data and peer review … .”
But critics like Lucero, who is president of the San Diego Cattlemen’s Association, which has 250 head of cattle grazing on land proposed for protection, begs to differ.
In a May 27 letter to USFS Regional Forester Cal Joyner, Lucero contends the Forest Service is engaged in “hasty and irresponsible decision making.” He claims that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to conduct an environmental impact analysis and issue a detailed statement regarding any “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.”
That, he says, hasn’t been done.
But Fish and Wildlife said it prepared a draft environmental assessment that was made available for public review in April.
On a recent visit to one of the tracts where association members graze their cattle, Lucero further complained that old data was used to identify jumping mouse populations. The last survey of their populations was done in 2005, he said.
“A lot can happen in 10 years,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife says surveys have been conducted every year since 2005, but acknowledges the data has been imperfect.
“We agree it would be useful to have more information on the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse,” it stated. “However, the best available scientific and commercial data indicate what the habitat requirements of the mouse are, including vegetation type and size. Further, it is evident that livestock grazing and recreational activities can negatively impact the required vegetation for mouse habitat, without doing further experimentation.”
Mouse is ‘the canary in the coal mine’
Getting the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse listed as endangered has been a long time coming for some. The need for federal protection was first recognized by Fish and Wildlife in 1985. The mouse was twice placed on the waiting list before WildEarth Guardians pressed the issue in 2008 by petitioning for the mouse to be listed as endangered.
As a result of the 2011 settlement, Fish and Wildlife did an assessment of whether the meadow jumping mouse met the criteria in the Endangered Species Act. That process included a 60-day comment period, but there were no public hearings.
After a reviewing the comments, the Forest Service determined that listing the jumping mouse was warranted. The rule formally designating the mouse as endangered was published June 10.
Brian Byrd of WildEarth Guardians said the meadow jumping mouse is a bellwether species for human health and environmental well-being.
“It’s the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “It’s an indicator of our own sustainability in the Southwest because, if our rivers and streams can’t be healthy, we as people can’t be healthy.”
The mouse’s habitat of vegetation around rivers and streams has been grazed by livestock and elk, he said. “So it’s really a reality check that we’ve been mistreating our rivers and streams, and the habitat related to them for too long.”
Excessive grazing is listed as one of the significant threats to the mouse, as well as water use and management, recreation and the loss of beaver populations.
A. Blair Dunn, an attorney representing the ranchers, contended that Fish and Wildlife’s determination was not supported by sound science and that putting up fences around water sources constitutes “trampling of private property water rights.”
He also said that the Fish and Wildlife Service has excluded the ranchers’ voice.
“They’re not interested in hearing from anyone. They’re just trying to ram it through,” he said.
Dunn also happens to be the attorney for Otero County, where a controversy over the jumping mouse sprung up in May.
The Forest Service fenced off a 23-acre tract in the Lincoln National Forest that prevented cattle from getting to a watering hole but, after the Otero County Commission told the sheriff to open a gate, the situation was defused, at least temporarily, by the feds permitting cattle access to the water.
‘We can all come together on this’
As one would expect, the New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association is in the ranchers’ corner.
Caren Cowen, executive director, said 12 ranchers in the north and four in the south could find their operations at risk through measures to protect the mouse.
Michael Lucero, Orlando’s cousin, is one of them. He says he’s a fifth-generation rancher in the Jemez Springs area; his son and daughter would make it six.
If he can’t graze his cattle and turn the family business over to his kids, he says he “will have failed my children.”
So he’s fighting it and feels ranchers’ voices aren’t being heard.
“They have policies, I get that,” he said. “But why can’t we all be involved, especially when someone’s paycheck is involved, when someone’s heritage is involved?”
Besides cattle, 8-foot fences could also exclude wildlife, hunters and anglers, he said.
He also points out that a portion of the San Antonio Campground, one of the most popular in the Jemez Mountains, lies within an area identified as potential critical habitat for the mouse and could face closure.
The Forest Service’s Trujillo said he couldn’t say for sure whether the campground would have to close.
As for the complaints that the federal agencies are moving too fast and ignoring ranchers, Trujillo said there appears to be confusion over the process.
“The NEPA process has not started,” he said. “It begins with a scoping notice that goes out to permittees and other interested stakeholders that says, ‘here’s an action we’re proposing.’ Once that scoping notice is out, that starts the NEPA process.”
Still, Michael Lucero said the Forest Service is taking the easy way out by putting up a fence, instead of managing the forest as a whole.
“If it were managed properly and we were able to get animals to disperse throughout the forest, we wouldn’t have to put up fences,” he said, adding that the Luceros have been good stewards of the land that has sustained their livelihood for generations.
“We can all come together on this if we sit down together and compromise, instead of having this hardheadedness,” he added. “Once a fence goes up, it never comes down.”