What Happens When Cattle Don’t Spend Summer in the Cebolla
From the September 2014 Newsletter
The New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse is a small rodent that lives along mountain meadow streams that are bordered by tall grasses, sedges, and shrubs such as willows and alders. Most of these areas lie in New Mexico’s National Forests, such as in the Pecos and Jemez Districts of the Santa Fe National Forest.
As reported in previous newsletters, the population of the Meadow Jumping Mouse has fallen to such a low level that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has declared it an endangered species. The population decline is due primarily to loss of habitat caused by overgrazing by cattle that are on National Forest permitted grazing allotments. The Forest Service is developing a plan for Jumping Mouse recovery on land it administers that, in draft form at least, involves fencing cattle out of the riparian areas along meadow streams. This is good news for anglers because keeping cattle out of streams and off their banks improves trout habitat and enhances fishing opportunities.
The draft Forest Service plan initially targets the meadow section of the Rio Cebolla where FR 376 crosses the stream. This section of the Cebolla has been the location of several NM Trout conservation projects and is an area of particular concern to us because overgrazing by cattle has severely degraded the stream and its corresponding fishing opportunities.
One Saturday evening in late August I drove up to the Cebolla to check on the condition of the stream. Most years one would find at least fifty head in the meadow and in the stream, even though the grazing plan allows them to be there only for two weeks in the spring and another two weeks in the fall. Usually the streamside grass would be grazed to no more than a few inches high by now. However, to my surprise, the Cebolla below the FR 376 crossing is in better shape than any other time in my memory. The streamside grass is lush and at least two feet tall and the banks themselves are recovering from the beating they have taken in previous years from trailing cattle. It is obvious that cattle have not been in the riparian area since early summer, which is why the grass is in such excellent shape.
The photo on the left is from mid April 2014 showing the state that the banks were in October 2013 when the cattle were removed. This is before the spring rains, so the grass has not yet greened up.
It’s not clear why the cattle have not been in the Cebolla meadows over most of the summer. Perhaps the Jumping Mouse listing has motivated the Forest Service to be more vigilant in enforcing its grazing regulations. Perhaps increased public scrutiny is encouraging the grazing permittees to more closely follow their permits. Maybe the excellent summer rains have caused enough forage growth in upland areas that the cattle stay out of the meadows. Whatever the reason, the present state of the Cebolla, which has not been grazed most of the summer, demonstrates the benefit of keeping cattle out of riparian meadows. The speed of the recovery of streamside vegetation (aided by abundant July and August rain) has been amazing. If the cattle continue to be excluded, the restoration will be even greater in future years and we might see the Cebolla once again as one of the best brown trout fisheries in New Mexico.