Groups want cattle corralled to protect rare mouse habitat


Environmentalists are accusing U.S. land managers of failing to keep livestock and wild horses out of streams and other wetlands in Arizona’s White Mountains, resulting in damage to habitat required by a rare species of mouse found only in the Southwest.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Tucson says the U.S. Forest Service is violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to maintain fences, round up feral animals and enforce grazing regulations on forest land in southeastern Arizona.

“We entrust the care and protection of these publicly owned treasures to the Forest Service, but it’s completely abdicated its responsibility. And the adorable jumping mouse is being pushed closer to extinction,” said Robin Silver, a cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that is suing.

Staff members from the center and the Maricopa Audubon Society say they have documented extensive damage from horses and cows in the area.

Officials in the Forest Service’s Southwest region did not immediately respond to the groups’ allegations. The agency typically does not comment on pending litigation.

The battle over the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse has been ongoing for years. The mouse was listed as an endangered species in 2014, prompting the Forest Service to fence off streams and watering holes in some national forests to protect habitat thought to be ideal.

Ranchers and others complained that the federal government was trampling private access to public lands by cordoning off riparian areas that are important for livestock and other animals that call the arid region home.

In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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.

Silver said by not protecting these upper-elevation meadows and streams, the loss of the mouse in eastern Arizona and the Sacramento Mountains in southeastern New Mexico is likely.

Biologists have blamed drought, wildfires, flooding and grazing in the habitat of the jumping mouse for the rodent’s declining numbers.

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.

With a tail that makes up for most of its length, the rodent is called a jumping mouse because it can leap more than 2 feet into the air when frightened. Long tails help the mice keep their balance, especially when they scale plant stems to reach ripening seeds, one their main food sources.

Aside from asking the court to force the Forest Service to develop stronger protections for the meadow jumping mouse, the lawsuit asks for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to promptly prepare a required recovery plan for the species.