Friday, April 4, 2008

Rare mouse could affect grazing on Lincoln land

By Karl Anderson, Staff Writer
Alamogordo Daily News

Legislative protection for a species of mouse that prefers living in livestock enclosures or beaver habitat could have a significant impact on ranchers who graze their cattle on Lincoln National Forest lands.

The WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group, sent a letter to the Forest Service March 19, demanding that immediate steps be taken to prevent the

New Mexico meadow jumping mouse's extinction.

But the Forest Service said ranchers shouldn't get too worried just yet.

"We have been looking at this species for some time now, and it is on our sensitive species list," said Sacramento Ranger District Biologist Rene Guaderrama. "I don't feel it is going to affect any new grazing activity at this time."

The group alleges that cattle grazing, climate change, drought and beaver removal are the leading threats to the mouse.

Given the recent designation of the jumping mouse as a formal candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, WildEarth is calling on the Forest Service to review all of its current and future plans for potential impacts, particularly cattle grazing permits.

"This rare mouse is barely hanging on," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for the group.

"The Forest Service needs to step up and protect the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse from cattle grazing on our public lands."

Rosmarino alleges the Forest Service is allowing streamside habitats to be grazed to the bone.

"This is pushing the jumping mouse to the brink of extinction," she said. "It is also harming the majority of Western wildlife, as 75 percent of the region's wildlife depend on streamside areas to survive."

This past December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius luteus) as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. It also listed threats to the species, which include habitat destruction due to grazing pressure, water use and management, highway reconstruction, development and recreation.

Fish and Wildlife said it believes the mouse is facing high-magnitude, imminent threats to its survival and therefore placed it in the highest priority category for Endangered Species Act protection.

Rosmarino said grazing must be adjusted on the Carson, Santa Fe and Lincoln national forests in order to prevent the jumping mouse's further decline.

The Guardians allege that grasses, the jumping mouse's principal food source and hiding cover, are currently managed for a target height that is eight times shorter than what the mouse needs.

"Plants average 33 inches in height where jumping mice have been found, while the Forest Service often allows cattle to graze plants down to a mere 4 inches," Rosmarino said.

But the Forest Service said that is not an accurate statement.

"Four inches is a range standard," Guaderrama said. "But that applies to uplands and key areas, which are typically located in meadows at least a quarter mile away from any water source. Those are not inclusive of riparian areas where the mouse prefers to live."

Where the mouse has been captured recently, Forest Service biologists have found the mean vertical cover to be 24.4 inches tall.

Other actions that WildEarth urged the Forest Service to take include limiting off-road vehicles.

In early April, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish released a draft recovery plan for the mouse, which specifies the need to protect jumping mouse habitat, including the use of fencing to exclude cattle from mouse habitat.

In addition, the state plan discusses how beavers can create suitable jumping mouse habitat, and how beaver removal poses a threat to the mouse.

Rosmarino said WildEarth Guardians encourages state involvement in efforts to save the mouse, but maintains that federal protection is the ultimate key.

"Federal protection is required, given the mouse's extreme imperilment and to ensure habitat protection and funding for mouse recovery," she said.

Guaderrama said there are areas in the Lincoln National Forest already closed off for riparian habitat enhancement that benefits the mouse.

"Most of these are areas that were previously used for grazing cattle," he said. "But that is not something new. I do not believe ranchers need to worry about any further areas affecting grazing any time in the near future."

Guaderrama said habitat requirements of the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse shows it is found in riparian areas with permanent running water and moist to wet soils, adjacent to tall and dense vegetation.

"The drought we have been in for the past 10 to 15 years has taken a toll on running water, which appears to have declined on the district here since 1988," he said.

The jumping mouse is a species the Forest Service analyzes for all projects.

"It has been on the Regional Foresters Region 3 Sensitive Species List for quite some time," Guaderrama said. "It was on the sensitive species list since 1999 and was also included on the 2007 sensitive species list."

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