A New Mexico county board on Monday instructed the local sheriff to open the Forest Service gates blocking thirsty cattle from reaching water, setting up a clash with federal agents over state water rights and endangered species.
The Otero County Commission voted 2-0, with one commissioner absent, to "immediately take steps to remove or open gates that are unlawfully denying citizens access to their private property rights."
Commissioner Ronny Rardin said Monday he was uncomfortable with taking action "against people that are my friends," apparently referring to local Forest Service rangers, but that he had an obligation as an elected commissioner to uphold the Constitution.
"That Constitution is in breach right now and it is our duty, it's our civil duty — if we want to keep our nation free and keep our country as it was intended to be by our forefathers — to stand up and take this type of action," said Mr. Rardin.
The tension comes as ranchers and others throughout the West cry foul over what they describe as the federal government's tightening control of public lands. About 52 percent of Western land is owned by the federal government.
The Otero County situation has even drawn comparisons to the standoff last month at the Nevada ranch owned by Cliven Bundy. Unlike Mr. Bundy, who had refused for 21 years to pay his grazing fees to the federal government, the New Mexico ranchers have not broken any laws.
The New Mexico ranchers became alarmed this year when Forest Service officials refused to open gates allowing cattle to reach a creek in the Lincoln National Forest. Local rangers have said that they are trying to protect the riparian area, which is considered habitat for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.
The mouse is expected to be listed as an endangered species in June. The proposed listing, which would include as much as 193 miles of critical habitat in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, comes after a settlement with WildEarth Guardians in 2011.
Otero County Sheriff Benny House said that he plans to wait to enforce the order until after a meeting Friday called by acting U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez.
"We're just doing our homework and finding out exactly what our options are between now and the meeting on Friday, and hopefully we can get something resolved on Friday," said Mr. House. "I'll give them that courtesy."
The Forest Service released a statement Monday saying that the fence, which has been in place for decades "was recently repaired and improved with input from the rancher to ensure that cattle still have access to water."
"There is an opening in the fence that provides access to water on these 23 acres and there is additional water throughout the surrounding 28,850 acres available to the cattle," said the statement. "The Forest Service will continue to work to ensure all parties involved understand that the fence is fully compliant with state and federal law."
Attorney Blair Dunn, who represents the county on the issue, says the cattle have had trouble finding the 10-foot opening in the fence, calling it a "needle in a haystack."
Ranchers argue that they own the water rights to the creek inside the Lincoln National Forest, and that their cattle have been drinking there for years. About 20 ranchers attended the Monday morning meeting, according to KVIA-TV in El Paso, Texas.
The only comment during Monday morning's meeting came from Denise Lang, a local activist who said the commission should defer to the federal government on matters affecting forest sustainability.
"Many of us have families who have sacrificed lives and lands, but we trust the United States Forest Service to sustain our forest," said Ms. Lang.
Supporters of the ranchers point out that the Forest Service is allowing hundreds of elk and deer, as well as wild feral hogs, to drink from the creek. The fence is low enough to allow elk and deer to jump over it, but not cattle.
"There's tracks and everything all over those streams anyway because there are hundreds of elk going in and out of there all the time," said Mr. Dunn. "They do exactly the same damage as cows."
Meanwhile in the Utah dispute, the Bureau of Land Management has begun an investigation that could lead to charges against up to 50 protesters who drove their ATVs on an off-limits trail Saturday in Utah's Recapture Canyon as part of an anti-government demonstration. One of the protest participants was Mr. Bundy's son, Ryan Bundy.
Motorized vehicles have been banned from the canyon, which holds artifacts of dwellings of ancient Indians, since 2007.
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