Updated: May 27, 2014 at 2:46 pm
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A battle that started over access to a small spring in the mountains of southern New Mexico could end up expanding to other areas of this drought-stricken state if federal land managers are forced to fence off more sources of water to protect a rare mouse.
Cal Joyner, the head forester for U.S. Forest Service lands in New Mexico and Arizona, is trying to get district rangers and ranchers talking now, but he concedes tensions could grow if more pressure is put on the region's dwindling water resources.
"Now we are really struggling to figure out what are we going to be able to do to best balance the needs of habitat protection and allow for livestock grazing," Joyner told The Associated Press in an interview.
Officials with the Lincoln, Santa Fe and Carson national forests have already sent letters to ranchers, warning that drought will likely continue to result in less forage on grazing allotments on national forest land and less water in streams and springs this season.
The letters talk about the lack of moisture but don't mention the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, which federal wildlife managers have proposed to list as an endangered species. Along with the impending listing, the federal government wants to set aside critical habitat for the mouse along streams and wetlands in a dozen counties in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.
Federal wildlife managers say more fencing will likely be needed on the Lincoln and Santa Fe forests in New Mexico and Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest to keep livestock away from wetlands once the tiny rodent is listed.
Ranchers see moves by the federal government to limit access to water and shorten the grazing season as efforts to push them off the land.
Drought has already forced many ranchers to sell off large portions of their herds, but the government's handling of the meadow jumping mouse is proving to be another frustration, said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association.
After denying a request to extend the public comment period on the mouse's proposed listing and the government shutdown last fall, Cowan said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted for a shorter comment period on the critical habitat this spring.
"They didn't give citizens ample time to comment, and they're not taking into account the social and economic consequences, which they're supposed to," Cowan said. "That is not following the spirit or intent of the law or the wording of the law."
A final decision on the mouse is expected in the coming months.
Regional forest officials said there will be other options besides erecting more fences. Forest managers will have to consider each area separately and go through a public process before making any final decisions.
There are more than 470 grazing allotments and hundreds of permit holders among New Mexico's five national forests. About a dozen allotment owners in northern New Mexico will be directly affected by the mouse listing, Cowan said.
In southern New Mexico, the fight over access to the Agua Chiquita continues with the Forest Service saying it has no authority to open the gates and Otero County commissioners arguing that ranchers have a right to water from the spring.
The area below the spring went dry last summer, and ranchers and forest officials say that will likely happen again this year if the monsoon season doesn't develop.
In an effort to keep the conflict from escalating, Joyner said Forest Service employees will not confront anyone.
"This is about a fence and some water and some mice. No one's going to get hurt over this," he said.
Joyner acknowledged that the combination of drought and more demands on forest resources have left people feeling insecure about basic necessities such as water, food and forage.
"They're all at risk as we start looking at larger and more frequent wildfires, droughts that seem extensive, rain that never comes," he said. "I think it has a strong impact in these sense of people being anxious about the security of their communities."
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