SANTA FE – The U.S. Forest Service on Friday ordered immediate closure of portions of Santa Fe National Forest’s Jemez Ranger District to protect habitat for the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.
The Forest Service said in a news release Friday that all activities – including grazing and recreation – are prohibited within the closure areas, about 224 acres in the Jemez Mountains along stretches of the Rio Cebolla and San Antonio Creek.
The four closed riparian areas are west of the Valles Caldera National Preserve within the 58,000-acre Jemez National Recreation Area.
The action comes a week after a judge denied a request in a lawsuit brought by ranchers for a restraining order to prevent the Forest Service from putting up fences to protect riparian zones in the Lincoln and Santa Fe national forests.
The ranchers claim the Forest Service has no legal right to erect fences without first conducting an environmental assessment. The Forest Service has said that it has a duty to protect the mouse under a recent federal ruling designating the mouse as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The closure areas include one along the west side of San Antonio Creek, just across from San Antonio Campground north of the village of La Cueva off NM 4, and three along the Rio Cebolla southwest of Fenton Lake.
Fencing to protect the occupied mouse habitat zones along the Rio Cebolla went up earlier this week, according to a Forest Service spokeswoman. The fencing sections off about 118 acres, much of it recreational land used for hiking, fishing and camping.
The San Antonio Campground – described on the Forest Service website as “extremely popular” – remains open, spokeswoman Donna Nemeth said. “The areas are clearly signed so there will be no mistake about what is closed,” she said.
Some roads to or through the closed areas also remain open. They include NM 126, Forest Road 376, the environmental kiosk and its parking area on Forest Road 376 where the Rio Cebolla crosses the road, and Forest Road 132.
While facing litigation from ranchers, the Forest Service has also been under legal pressure from environmentalists to protect mouse habitat. Last week, Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians sued the Forest Service for allowing livestock grazing in stream-side areas in the Santa Fe National Forest said to be critical jumping mouse habitat.
The Forest Service said in its Friday news release that the areas being closed will remain off-limits “until consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can be concluded.” Nemeth said there is no timetable for that consultation to be completed.
“We need more studies on the area and will work in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife, as well as the permittees, to find a solution that protects the mouse,” Nemeth said. “In the meantime, we have to take protective measures to protect the habitat.”
In a suit filed in early September, nearly two dozen ranchers, the state Farm and Livestock Bureau and cattlemen groups contended their private property rights as well as the centuries-old ranching traditions of rural communities bordering national forests are at stake in the fight over mouse habitat.
The ranchers contend the government has violated federal law by failing to assess the habitat or range conditions in the areas it says should be off-limits to grazing. “It is my opinion that the actions being taken are being done without consideration of our heritage, cultures or our devoted conservation efforts,” northern New Mexico rancher Mike Lucero said.
On the other side, Bryan Bird, a biologist with WildEarth Guardians, said this week that the mouse is a bellwether species for New Mexico’s rivers and watersheds. “The livestock industry has enjoyed special treatment from the federal government for so long that our streams have been trampled to death. We don’t know what healthy rivers look like anymore,” Bird said.
WildEarth Guardians says about 70 populations of the mouse, found mostly in New Mexico but also in parts of Arizona and Colorado, have been destroyed since the late 1980s and blames livestock grazing as the primary cause.