Sacramento Mountains, NM

A view from the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico. Richard Stephen Haynes

Environmental groups filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for its failure to protect the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse’s habitat from cattle grazing.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Maricopa Audubon Society stated that since the jumping mouse was listed as endangered in 2014, USFS has taken “modest measures” to protect its habitat in the Lincoln National Forest in the Sacramento Mountains.

“Cattle grazing is the reason these once-beautiful streamside meadows are trashed and the mouse is disappearing,” said Robin Silver, cofounder of CBD. “It’s absurd that [USFS] spends millions in taxpayer money failing to protect the area and stop this slow-motion extinction instead of just removing the cows.”

The lawsuit asserts USFS renewed livestock grazing permits and delayed the release of the biological opinion (BiOp) issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which essentially “authorized the same business-as-usual livestock grazing activities.” The BiOp concluded livestock grazing would have a minimal effect on the habitat of the jumping mouse.

In 2016, USFWS designated approximately 13,970 acres of critical habitat in northern New Mexico, southern Colorado and eastern Arizona. In the designation, USFWS concluded that, while the area in the Sacramento Mountains is currently unoccupied by the jumping mouse, it is a critical habitat that is “highly restorable and essential for the conservation of the species.”

The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse measures 7-9 inches and hibernates for up to nine months a year. The mouse lives in tall, dense grasses and forbs found only in riparian areas along perennial flowing streams.

The lawsuit states the BiOp discharges USFS and USFWS from their obligations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and have acted in a manner that is “arbitrary and capricious, [and] an abuse of discretion.” CBD and Maricopa Audubon Society are asking the court to stop the reauthorization of the grazing permits until such authorizations by the agencies are brought into compliance with the ESA.

“Public lands grazing is a privilege, not a right,” said Mark Larson, Maricopa Audubon president, in a statement. “We’re all poorer when a species goes extinct. We hope the courts will hold federal officials accountable, save this little mouse and protect these spectacular public lands.”

The struggle between environmentalists and ranchers over the jumping mouse has been an ongoing problem settled in the courts.

In October 2020, a lawsuit brought by Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association and the Otero County Cattlemen’s Association over the critical habitat designation of the jumping mouse was dismissed.

The environmental groups reached an agreement with USFS after filing suit in February regarding the jumping mouse’s habitat in the White Mountains of Arizona. Under the agreement, USFS will reconstruct broken fences and monitor any damage by cattle and wild horses. USFS will round up any horses or cattle found in the protected area.

Prior to the announcement of the most recent lawsuit, Randell Major, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that ranchers are the “ones that are becoming extinct” and “it’s getting harder and harder to make a living in New Mexico.” — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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