ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Environmentalists on Friday accused the federal government of not doing enough to protect a rare western mouse that's already at the center of a dispute over access to national forest land and water rights.
Native to New Mexico and parts of Arizona and Colorado, the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse was recently added to the list of endangered species as a result of a multi-species settlement with the Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians.
The group has notified the U.S. Forest Service it will be suing for greater protections of the mouse's streamside habitat, saying grazing authorized by the agency is a threat to the mouse's existence.
Bryan Bird, a biologist with the group, said the mouse's populations have declined by at least 76 percent in the past 15 years and the remaining mice are often found in areas actively protected from grazing.
"The Forest Service has been building special habitat enclosures that allow access for small wildlife and recreationists for many years, but not enough," Bird said. "They will likely have to fence out cattle from many more miles of streams to end the trampling of vegetation and stream banks."
WildEarth Guardians is asking the Forest Service to begin formal discussions under the Endangered Species Act to address the effects of grazing on the mouse in the Santa Fe and Lincoln national forests and the Apache-Sitgreaves forest, which straddles the Arizona-New Mexico state line.
The Forest Service already has fencing up on the Lincoln forest, where local officials have asked the county sheriff to do whatever is necessary to remove the fencing or open the gate. On the Santa Fe forest, the agency wants to fence about 120 acres and issue a closure order to keep out livestock and campers.
Forest officials have acknowledged the agency's responsibility to protect the mice now that they're classified as endangered.
Ranchers want the agency to find a solution that would allow for grazing while still protecting the mice.
Mike Lucero, who is among the more than two dozen ranching families who raise cattle near the Rio Cebolla in the Jemez Mountains, said ranchers are willing to look at other options.
"But let's not just take out every single inch of grazing along the rivers because they say there might be a mouse there. It shouldn't work that way," he said.
Over the past decade, federal biologists have documented 29 meadow jumping mouse populations in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, but nearly all are isolated and have patches of habitat that are too small to support resilient populations. In some areas, the mouse has already disappeared.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed setting aside nearly 200 miles along streams and wetlands in a dozen counties in the three states as critical habitat for the mouse. A final decision is expected this fall.