Friday, March 28, 2008

Conservationists push for meadow jumping mouse protections

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Conservationists want the federal government to take notice of the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, saying climate change and unchecked livestock grazing are pushing the rare rodent closer to extinction.

The mouse once lived in nearly 100 locations along rivers and streams around New Mexico and in parts of Arizona, but recent surveys have shown that the furry rodent is now found only in about a dozens places in the two states.

The mouse, considered endangered by the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, was recently added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's list of plants and animals that are candidates for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"We've argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service should emergency list this mouse and so we believe that all federal agencies should take steps now to protect the mouse in order to prevent its extinction. It is that imperiled," said Nicole Rosmarino, director of WildEarth Guardians' wildlife program.

Conservationists and state and federal biologists agree the biggest threats facing the mouse are grazing and the loss of habitat. The mouse depends on moist meadows along streams and rivers to make its home, find food and reproduce.

WildEarth Guardians sent the U.S. Forest Service a letter last week asking that the agency take a close look at grazing practices and other activities on forest land considering the mouse's status.

The group charges that poor land management is partly too blame for the loss of habitat.

"Certainly, the Forest Service does not have a good track record when it comes to reining in livestock grazing," Rosmarino said. "Our public lands in the Southwest are hammered by livestock grazing ... despite steady pressure from us to curtail that very harmful land use."

While grazing in the national forest system has been a privilege for ranchers for decades, Forest Service spokesman Art Morrison said the agency's rangers take seriously their role as stewards in monitoring grazing practices.

"When we talk about doing the annual operating plans, there's all kinds of things in the way of adjustments for a multitude of species," he said. "By and large, most of it has to do with the amount of rainfall."

No rain means no grass, and no grass means no food or cover for the meadow jumping mouse.

Jim Stuart, a non-game endangered species mammologist with the Game and Fish Department, said the effects of drought are evident when looking at the mouse's historic range.

During the 1980s, biologists found the mouse in the Jemez, Sangre de Cristo and Sacramento mountains of New Mexico. A second round of surveys in 2005 and 2006 found that many of the original sites had dried up and the mouse was gone.

Another problem, Stuart said, is that the rodent is found in small populations far from one another.

"You fragment their distribution to the point that there's no continuity among any of the scattered populations and then they're more vulnerable," he said. "They could basically disappear completely."

While the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to decide whether the mouse warrants endangered species protection, Stuart's agency has put together a recovery plan for the rodent. The state Game Commission will consider the plan at its meeting next month.

The Forest Service also considers the mouse a species of concern. That means any time a project is proposed on forest land, the agency has to ensure that the rodent's habitat won't be affected.

State and federal biologists agree that protecting riparian habitats across the state will help more than just the mouse. Of the state's 867 species of vertebrates, more than half rely to some extent on aquatic, wetland or riparian areas.

"As long as we keep things in balance and keep the habitat in a way that can sustain itself over time, then everybody—everybody being all the species—is better off in the long run," Morrison said.

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