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A mouse vs. cattle: Showdown between ranchers and the feds in Otero County continues

By   /   May 16, 2014  /   9 Comments

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The dispute isn’t over between ranchers whose cattle have been locked out of drinking from a creek in southern New Mexico by federal agents who say the water is vital in order to protect a mouse expected to be listed as an endangered species.

What was called a “facilitated discussion” was held Friday morning in Albuquerque at the U.S. Attorney’s Office between officials from Otero County representing the ranchers and about a dozen representatives of the federal government, including the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Justice.

WATER WAR: The U.S. Forest Service has locked out cattle belonging to ranchers in Otero County, N.M., because it wants to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse. Photo from KVIA-TV.

WATER WAR: The U.S. Forest Service has locked out cattle belonging to ranchers in Otero County, N.M., because it wants to protect the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse. Photo from KVIA-TV.

But no agreement was reached between the two sides, according to Blair Dunn, the county’s attorney.

“Basically, the Forest Service said they don’t have the authority, and neither did DOJ or anyone at that meeting, to just allow the gate to be opened,” Dunn told New Mexico Watchdog.

Phone messages left with acting U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, Damon Martinez, and to the communications office of the DOJ’s office in Albuquerque were not returned as of 5 p.m. Friday. Update: At 5:48 p.m., public affairs officer Elizabeth Martinez of the Department of Justice District of New Mexico office released a brief statement saying  “no resolution was reached” at Friday’s meeting.

The controversy marks another battle in the West between the federal government — which owns vast expanses of land in states like New Mexico, Utah and Nevada — and local ranchers who graze their cattle.

In Otero County, the officials at the U.S. Forest Service have fenced off access to water for the ranchers’ grazing cattle, hoping 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. Opponents say the federal government has no right to control access to the water their cattle, thirsty from a long drought that has hit New Mexico, need.

The environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which has been lobbying to put the meadows jumping mouse on the endangered species list, sent out a letter Friday just before the meeting started, calling on the feds to keep the fences up.

MOUSE IN THE MIDDLE: The meadow jumping mouse is expected to be listed as endangered next month.

MOUSE IN THE MIDDLE: The meadow jumping mouse is expected to be listed as endangered next month.

“There is an all-too-common misconception in some western rural communities that ranchers somehow have a ‘right’ to graze by the virtue of their grazing permits,” citing a number of court cases as well as the Enabling Act the state of New Mexico signed in 1910 before becoming the nation’s 47th state.

“Our national forests do not belong to a permitee who would like to exploit their resources or local politicians who would allow it,” WildEarth Guardians program director Bryan Bird said in the letter. “They belong to all Americans.”

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Dunn said in a telephone interview. “In the past when we’ve had drought and problems, the Forest Service came and opened the gate … but they didn’t have any interest in doing that” Friday.

Before Friday’s meeting the ranchers had asked Sheriff Benny House to cut off the locks. House attended the meeting Friday but it’s not clear what the next step will be.

Dunn said Otero County officials will look into filing criminal complaints and civil lawsuits against the feds as well as asking the U.S. Congress to look into the issue.

Before Friday’s meeting, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, told Associated Press, “These disputes could be easily avoided if federal bureaucrats would stick to their constitutional oath and respect property rights.”

The Otero County standoff comes one 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.

“They (the federal agents at Friday’s meeting) don’t want to have a Bundy Ranch situation,” Dunn said. “But they wanted to try to push the county and the sheriff to tell their citizens to quiet down. That was what repeatedly came up was, ‘we really can’t promise to open the gate and we can’t really promise you anything to make things better but we want you to help us and go down there and get everybody to be quiet .’ As much as anything it was said to the county, you better quiet down or we’ll come after you.”

“The Forest Service is well within its right to completely restrict access the area and the water therein, a measure that WildEarth Guardians would support to ensure protection of the jumping mouse,” Bird said in his letter. “Furthermore, such a complete restriction would be reasonable as it would apply to a mere 23 of the 28,850 acres (less than .1 percent of the grazing at issue), and there is other water access therein that the permittee can use for cattle.”

Concact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.

  • Greg Lennes

    This is crazy. These ranchers will destroy a developing watershed with their cattle. The Agua Chiquita stream project includes assessment and monitoring, improvement of pool structure and fish habitat, restoration and enhancement of a critical associated wetland, and fencing to provide protection of the site from cattle along the upper portion of the project area. This important project will restore a perennial headwater section of stream following a major fire event that eliminated an existing fishery, and will provide a potential site for reintroduction of native Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. It is just anti-Federal government rhetoric. This does not have to do with property rights. The Otero commissioners don’t care if they destroy this watershed project. This is not about tyranny or the meadow jumping mouse.

  • qofdisks
  • Jeff in NM

    Saw this issue yesterday in Sunday paper 5-18-14.

    Seems like a simple solution might be to leave fence and add piping water to an added tank or tanks for cattle outside the fence.

    The following benefits would appear to be a result:

    -Keeps cattle from damaging watershed

    -Water would be cleaner for cattle compared to walking around and drinking it

    -Helps protect mouse that is one of the areas of concern

    -Avoids spending money on lawyers, lawsuits, and wasted time when a simple solution seems to be in order.

    The money saved would seem to easily pay for an engineered solution rather than a legal solution, perhaps creating a win-win solution for everyone but perhaps the lawyers.

  • ROBERT ALLEN

    Jeff! your comment is superior to all! You need to go to the white house and

    clean house…give walking papers to all these environmental sick people….

    Not once did I hear any negative remarks from these “sick” pathetic jerks

    about the cows killed of Mr. Bundy”s…. Even though this group is not related

    to saving cows…. You should be in charge of it “ALL”! I can not praise you

    enough!

    Gary’s wife,

    Cindy

  • qofdisks

    Jeff, that is the current arrangement. These guys want to cut the fences and let the cows trample near the water source, the spring.

  • ROBERT ALLEN

    Qofdisks, You would think the BLM, would have did this a hundred years ago…

    they are ignorant geeks…. Why, has just come to their attention now? Just

    like obama, he is always unaware of what is going on anywhere…oh! I forgot

    he has to hear on the news channel…. This is what happens, when educated

    idiots are in charge….

    Gary’s wife,

    Cindy

  • qofdisks

    Robert, it has come to our attention now because the crazy people have suddenly decided to defy government authority for the sake of making a show of defiance.

  • KB3b

    Qofdisks, you and people like you are what is wrong with this country. keep kissing the governments butt and see if they will do you any good! This crap about a mouse is ridiculous… cows don’t hurt mice, they wont run them off from the water source… also a plan to divert some water to a holding tank was denied by the federal government when it was proposed by the ranchers that have grazing rights!!

  • ROBERT ALLEN

    qofdisks! Somebody has to have the “balls”, to stand-up for freedom, whether

    it be land,life, or for people like you! Did you totally comprehend my comment?

    I can give you the correct reply, “no”! Look who is calling these ranchers crazy

    and defiers of gov.? You need to take a course about the “CONSTITUTION

    of the USA? What about the ALAMO,PATRICK HENRY, and others…”YOUR”E

    BUT”, would not even be here! This is the last reply to you…there is no hope

    for geeks who worship the gov. and obama….

    Gary’s wife,

    Cindy

    by-the-way, I do not capitalize names, unless they are worthy….