- Associated Press - Thursday, July 10, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The U.S. Forest Service wants to block livestock and campers from stretches of the Rio Cebolla in the Santa Fe National Forest to protect an endangered mouse found in moist, forested areas of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

The plan, outlined in a letter received by ranchers Thursday, marks the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute that has residents and local officials from across the West accusing the federal government of trampling on their water and property rights.

The fight over the mouse first erupted in southern New Mexico’s Otero County with the fencing of a small spring-fed stream. County commissioners responded by ordering the sheriff to do whatever was necessary to remove or open the gates.

Now, that fight has moved north to the Jemez Mountains, where Mike Lucero and more than two dozen other families who raise cattle stand to lose their livelihoods. He said the Forest Service is set on building fences around water supplies and there’s not much the families can do.

“It’s very frustrating because we don’t know where we stand, and we’re going to have to spend money in litigation just to fight for our rights,” Lucero said. “And you know, we’re fighting our own tax dollars. They’re using my tax money to put me out of business. That’s ridiculous, and it’s sad.”

Some New Mexico ranchers are headed to Washington, D.C., this month for a congressional hearing on the matter.

Federal biologists and environmentalists say now that the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse is on the endangered species list, its streamside habitat in the three states needs to be protected.

The mouse needs dense vegetation that’s at least a couple of feet tall, forest officials said. Grass that tall has become nearly nonexistent in New Mexico and other Southwestern states because of persistent drought.

The Forest Service said previously that 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.

Four enclosures of different sizes would be built to keep livestock out, while elk and other wildlife would still be able to access the riverbanks.

Additionally, a closure order to keep recreationists from camping in the area would be prepared as soon as possible, officials said.

The public has until Aug. 10 to comment on the plan.

Ranchers argue the project could have significant financial effects and should be reviewed before any action is taken.

“We’re not against the Endangered Species Act. We’re not against animals that need protection. We’re stewards of the land,” Lucero said. “If the mouse is even there, why can’t we all come together and solve this problem.”

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.”

Caren Cowen, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said ranchers will continue to fight for their rights. The combination of drought and political pressure 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.

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