By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. — For more than a century, the Lucero family has grazed livestock in the majestic landscape near Fenton Lake in the Santa Fe National Forest. They started with sheep and, in the 1920s, switched to cattle.
But that may all come to an end because of an endangered mouse.
“You’re taking a lot of heritage away,” said Mike Lucero, as he looks over the creek that cuts through the meadow. He was accompanied by his brother Manuel and cousin Orlando, who have brought their family’s cattle to this spot since they were children.
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species. Now, the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the Santa Fe National Forest, is considering erecting a series of 8-foot high fences to protect the mouse’s habitat.
The Luceros, members of the San Diego Cattleman’s Association and holders of grazing permits with the federal government, say the fences will lock out their cattle — as well as those of other permit holders — from ever returning to the meadow where the livestock graze for 20 days in the spring and up to 40 days in the fall.
“We’re not insensitive to protecting the mouse,” Orlando Lucero said. “But let’s work on something that keeps everyone’s interests in mind.”
Forest Service officials in Albuquerque say no final decision has been made but, at the same time, they are required by law to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Since the meadow jumping mouse is now listed as endangered, the Forest Service is bound to take steps to protect its habitat.
Grazing was listed as one of the “a primary threats” to the mouse, said Robert Trujillo, the acting director of Wildlife, Fish and Rare Plants for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service.
“It’s been our experience that a fence like that to protect that occupied habitat seems to be the best way we can do our affirmative duty and protect that habitat,” Trujillo said.
But the Luceros say putting up a fence is an example of federal government overkill.
“At first, they were talking about a 300-yard fence on eight feet of either side (of the Rio Cebolla, a creek that feeds the meadow),” Manuel Lucero said. “But you look at the (Forest Service) map now and it goes on for three and a half miles – and that’s just for this allotment.”
In fact, the Forest Service proposal could potentially put up fencing over large swaths of the forest, including the San Antonio Campground, a popular destination for families and outdoors enthusiasts in northern New Mexico.
“The San Antonio area, from what I’ve seen, is in the upper portion of that occupied habitat,” Trujillo said. “It possibly could (be affected) but no decision has been made on that.”
“I don’t think the public realizes the San Antonio Campground is being considered,” Mike Lucero said. “If they did, I think there would be a lot upset people.”
The Luceros complain the Forest Service has not done enough to inform the public about the proposed fencing.
“Let’s protect the mouse but we don’t need to take the whole valley,” Orlando Lucero said.
Trujillo said the Forest Service has just started what it calls its “scoping process” to elicit comments. “No decision will be made without gathering input from affected individuals,” he said.
The meadow jumping mouse has plenty of support among environmentalists.
“Saving the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the streamside habitat it needs to survive is long overdue,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity when the mouse received endangered status. “When we protect this tiny animal, we’re also helping people, because we all rely on clean water for survival.”
Trujillo says the mouse is active three to four months out of the year and spends the rest of its time hibernating.
This is the second time in the space of two months that the meadow jumping mouse has raised hackles among people with grazing permits in the state.
Some 275 miles south, in Otero County, the Forest Service reinforced locked gates to keep out cattle from a creek called the Agua Chiquita to protect the mouse’s habitat. The move angered ranchers who tend over herds thirsty from a prolonged drought.
An attorney for Otero County says the state of New Mexico – not the federal government – has the right to access to the water to the creek and a lawsuit may be in the offing.
While the locked gate in the Otero County controversy keeps out only cattle, the Luceros complain 8-foot fencing in the Forest Service proposal in the Santa Fe Forest would keep out just about all forms of wildlife, including elk.
But the difference, Trujillo said, is that “the elk and deer get in there, get water and get out. They don’t tend to lounge around and graze heavily. Cows will sit in there and graze.”
So when will the feds make a decision? Trujillo said it could range anywhere from 30 days to 8 months, depending on how long the assessments take.
“I want to reiterate, we’re committed to working with our permitees and all other stakeholders to really find where that sweet spot is,” Trujillo said.
But the Lucero family is skeptical.
“I think they’re afraid of getting sued” by environmental organizations, Mike Lucero said.
And if the fence is erected, will the Luceros stop ranching?
“Why would we give it up after four generations?” Orlando Lucero said. “We were here before the (Forest Service), back during land grants. We’re not going to go nowhere.”
Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of Mike Lucero:
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski