SANTA FE – Nearly 14,000 acres in three states – the vast majority of it in New Mexico – has been designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse in a “final rule” announced by the agency Tuesday.
In all, about 190 linear miles of rivers and streams in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico were designated as critical habitat for the mouse, which lives and breeds in riparian areas. More than 9,000 acres of the protected areas are on state or federal land, and about 5,000 acres are on private land.
Ranchers have opposed the habitat designation, focusing on areas that have been blocked off for the mouse in the Santa Fe National Forest along the Rio Cebolla in the Jemez Mountains and in the Lincoln National Forest in western New Mexico.
“Critical habitat designation for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse will ensure that sufficient, high-quality riparian habitat is available for the species' eventual recovery,” Benjamin Tuggle, USFWS's Southwest region director, said in a news release. “This carefully determined designation identifies habitat most vital to the survival of the species.”
A spokesman for USFWS said no recreational areas are affected. “Places like Fenton Lake that are developed for recreation are always excluded from the designation,” Wally Murphy said.
The critical habitat designation becomes official April 15. “That gives everyone a chance to make adjustments and plan accordingly,” Murphy said.
Just months after the mouse was given its endangered species designation in 2014 and fencing went up in some areas to protect them from intrusion by wildlife and grazing cattle, about two dozen ranchers holding permits on national forest land and several cattlemen groups sued the federal government. They claimed that water and property rights were being violated and the centuries-old ranching traditions were at stake, but a federal court denied a motion for a restraining order to have the fences removed.
Messages left with the attorney who represented the ranchers, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The jumping mouse populations are scattered across the region that includes Colfax, Mora, Otero, Sandoval and Socorro counties in New Mexico.
The Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians first sued the federal government to have the mouse listed as endangered and more than 100 other species protected. In 2011 the groups reached a settlement with the Department of Interior. “Protection of the streamside habitat that the mouse needs to survive is long overdue,” Jay Lininger, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday in a news release. “This is one of the most precariously endangered mammals in the country, and protecting its habitat will benefit a host of other species, too, and improve water quality.”
According to Fish and Wildlife, 29 populations of the mouse have been identified since 2005. Of those, 11 were determined to be substantially compromised due to water shortages, wildfire, flooding or grazing.