Little Mouse May Rescue Trout Habitat

Ron Loehman, NMT Conservation Chair

In the last newsletter I wrote that the Forest Service had cancelled our May 31st conservation project because the grazing permittees strongly objected to any structures that might keep their cattle from accessing the Rio Cebolla. The meadow sections of the Cebolla have been seriously degraded by many years of uncontrolled grazing. Our project would have fenced about two acres of the stream as an experimental plot to show the recovery that is possible if cattle were excluded. The alternative project would have replaced about a quarter mile of a deteriorating existing fence on the east side of the lower Cebolla. The permittees objected to that project, so the Forest Service cancelled it as well.

The Forest Service’s priorities were abruptly changed on July 8th when the New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse was listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). This little mouse, which originally was widespread along meadow streams in New Mexico, is in danger of extinction because of loss of critical habitat, primarily due to overgrazing of streamside vegetation by cattle. Small numbers of jumping mice were found in earlier surveys of the meadows along the Cebolla, so that area will be a prime focus of recovery efforts. The mouse requires streamside grasses and sedges at least two feet tall, as well as willows and alders, precisely the sort of vegetation that also improves stream quality and trout habitat.

On July 10th, the Santa Fe National Forest published its first response to the jumping mouse listing. They propose fencing about 120 acres of riparian meadow on both sides of the Rio Cebolla both above and below the site of our cancelled May 31st project. The fence will be of steel post and cable construction, designed to keep out cattle but otherwise it will allow passage of wildlife and anglers. Dispersed camping within the fences will be banned.

I have communicated New Mexico Trout’s willingness to help with restoration activities to most of the Forest Service staff who will be involved in the jumping mouse recovery project. Right now, nothing is published except for the July 10th plan (see below). However, it will certainly be a multiyear effort, probably involving a lot more places than this first phase, and it should include planting riparian shrubs and possibly in-stream habitat improvements. There is much to be done and our volunteers have a lot experience with this sort of work, so I expect us to be actively involved. No actual site work can start until after the end of the comment period on August 10th.

The grazing permittees are mounting a publicity and political campaign, hoping to derail these recovery activities. Their Canon de San Diego grazing allotment, which includes most of the Rio Cebolla and San Antonio drainages, amounts to over 110,000 acres of public land. The mouse habitat along the meadow streams is a tiny fraction of that amount, but they are claiming that fencing parts of these riparian meadows will put them out of business. I encourage New Mexico Trout members to let the Forest Service know that we support their activities to restore New Mexico Jumping Mouse habitat by fencing out cattle from riparian meadows. You could mention that this habitat improvement will also benefit water quality and trout habitat in the Cebolla, which also have been degraded over the years by cattle grazing.

The official description and map of the project are available at: http://www.fs.usda.gov/. The plan is open to public comments until August 10th, which can be submitted on-line at: comments-southwestern-santafe-cuba@fs.fed.us. The responsible FS official is Allan Setzer, Cuba Ranger District, 04B County Road 11, Cuba, NM 87013, 575-289-3264.

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