By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — It hasn’t reached the fever-pitch of the showdown involving Cliven Bundy, but a handful of ranchers in southern New Mexico have locked horns with the federal government.
Their complaint? Officials at the U.S. Forest Service have fenced off access to water for the ranchers’ grazing cattle because the feds want to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse, which is expected to be listed as an endangered species next month.
The Forest Service says it is worried cattle will damage 23 acres along the Agua Chiquita that includes a natural spring it says is essential the protect the ecosystem for the mouse.
Ranchers are angry the feds have reinforced locks and fences to keep out their cattle, thirsty from a long drought that has hit New Mexico. Besides, they say, the land belongs to a local rancher.
“The Forest Service has no right to appropriate water under New Mexico law,” Blair Dunn, an attorney for Otero County, told New Mexico Watchdog.
But the Forest Service disagrees and says the fences have been in place since the 1990s and the creek itself is on federal property.
“We’ve provided reasonable access to the water, even if there is a water right on these sites,” Forest Supervisor Travis Moseley told KVIA-TV.
Tensions are rising.
On Monday, Otero County Commissioners voted 2-0 to authorize Sheriff Benny House to open the gate.
“I’ve never seen one of these mice, and the Forest Service claims they caught one last year,” Commissioner Tommie Herrell told Reuters.
The endangered listing for the meadow jumping mouse comes after a settlement was reached with WildEarth Guardians in 2011.
“The job of the Forest Service is to balance uses for the greatest good for the greatest number of Americans, not to provide subsidized grazing to welfare ranchers,” WildEarth Guardians posted on its Facebook page May 6.
Otero County resident Denise Lang said he hopes the feds win the dispute.
“This is the U.S. Forest Service who is protecting the sustainability of our forest,” Lang told commissioners at Monday’s meeting.
House, meanwhile, has not acted.
Instead, what’s being called a “facilitated discussion” between the two sides has been scheduled for Friday at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Albuquerque to try to come to a compromise.
“Hopefully we can get something resolved on Friday,” said House.
“This is part of a larger issue,” Dunn said. “There’s a big, strong push, which comes from the White House, to push grazing and oil and gas uses off federal ground. This incident here is just another example.”
“The Forest Service will continue to work to ensure all parties involved understand that the fence is fully compliant with state and federal law,” the service said in a statement released earlier this week.
The Otero County flare-up comes a month after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy squared off against officials at the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy, who has lost repeatedly in court, tends his cattle on federal land. After the BLM tried to round-up his cattle and sparked a protest, the BLM stopped the roundup and is considering what to do next.
In Utah, meanwhile, another protest has popped up over the use of ATVs on trails that go into Recapture Canyon in the southeastern part of the state that have deemed off-limits.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski