ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Environmentalists are asking for an independent investigation into U.S. Forest Service practices in southern New Mexico, saying hundreds of grazing violations on the Lincoln National Forest have pushed an endangered mouse closer to extinction.
The Center for Biological Diversity in its request pointed to a November report that looked at the condition of the habitat used by the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, the connectivity between those patches of habitat and how long the tiny rodent has been missing from those areas. The report indicated that the mouse’s population in one stretch of southern New Mexico was near zero.
Robin Silver, a cofounder of the group, wrote in a letter sent last week to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen that local and regional forest officials have failed to issue any noncompliance letters to ranchers who graze in the area despite more than 330 instances in which cattle were found in locations that had been fenced off for the mouse.
“We’re witnessing an extinction in progress,” Silver said in statement sent to The Associated Press. “We hope an inspector general’s investigation can shed more light on this tragic situation and give these adorable little mice a fighting chance at survival.”
While it’s unclear whether forest officials will consider the request, regional agency spokesman Shayne Martin said Thursday that several projects have been dedicated to establishing critical habitat for the mouse and looking at what strategies might work best over the long-term to bolster the population.
“What I can say is that our agency has put significant scientific research behind all actions taken, to include restoration of critical riparian areas for all species,” Martin said. “We’ve also worked closely with ranchers to ensure that grazing in these areas follows adaptive management measures that considers the full array of human and environment effects.”
The mice live near streams and depend on tall grass to hide from predators. They hibernate for about nine months, emerging in the late spring to gorge themselves before mating, giving birth and going back into hibernation. They normally live about three years.
The latest study aims to set the stage for long-term habitat planning for the mouse. So far, the focus has been on improving those patches of habitat that are considered healthier and have more potential for supporting the mouse.
The research suggests that efforts start with patches immediately adjacent to those areas already occupied by the mouse and then address the occupied patches before moving outward. The report states any successful long-distance dispersal by the rodents to colonize new meadows would be extremely unlikely.
Biologists say growing mouse numbers is a challenge because of the small population they have to start with and the lack of more suitable habitat.
Three decades ago, the mice were found at 17 locations in the Sacramento Mountains on the Lincoln National Forest. Now, it’s just one. The report noted that the downward trajectory of the population continued in 2020.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 designated nearly 22 square miles (57 square kilometers) along about 170 miles (274 kilometers) of streams, ditches and canals as critical habitat in parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.
In Arizona, environmentalists sued the federal government earlier this year for failing to keep livestock and wild horses out of streams and other wetlands in the White Mountains. They claimed the resulting damage was compromising the mouse population there.
Officials in the Forest Service’s Southwest region have said the agency has been working since the mouse was listed as an endangered species in 2014 to control livestock access to riverbanks and wetland areas while balancing water rights.
In northern New Mexico, the Forest Service and the National Park Service have fenced off numerous wetlands and streams for the mouse, including at Valles Caldera National Preserve where elk herds roam and some grazing still occurs.