ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A few years ago, ranchers in northern New Mexico were in a contentious dispute with environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service over access to grazing land in the Jemez Mountains, all because of a tiny mouse.

In 2014, the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, a rarely seen subspecies in hibernation for most of its short lifespan, was recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species requiring habitat protection.

That led to nearly 15,000 acres of riparian areas along rivers and streams in Arizona and Colorado, but mostly in New Mexico — including acreage along the Rio Cebolla and tributaries in the Jemez — being designated as critical habitat for the mouse.

Areas were fenced off, preventing ranchers — some whose families have grazed cattle on the Santa Fe National Forest for four generations — from gaining access.

But that dispute has been defused since each side sat down and started talking to each other in what Toner Mitchell of Trout Unlimited described as a newfound "spirit of cooperation."

"Conflict was getting us nowhere," he said. "So we decided to try collaboration over conflict and work together in the spirit of cooperation and partnership. I won't speak for the ranchers, but I think it's worked out to where we're now seeing results."

Mike Lucero confirms the collaboration has produced results in the eyes of ranchers. He is president of the San Diego Cattlemen's Association, one of two such groups with allotments in the Jemez. The two groups graze 576 head of cattle on 160,000 acres of public land permitted for grazing.

"We're working good together now," said Lucero, who has been critical of the U.S. Forest Service in the past. "Starting with these projects, we're benefiting not just the cattlemen, but everyone using the land — and the watershed and forest, too."

'WE'RE WATERING WILDLIFE'

Lucero was referring to projects complete, underway and on the horizon that are designed to bring water to areas that have been left dry, as well as improve environmental conditions in meadows, wetlands and the forest.

The first project replaced a well in San Diego Canyon that had been out of commission for about eight years. Lucero said about 17 miles of water lines run from the well to the mesa tops on each side of the canyon where the cattle normally are. Water is pumped through the lines that run along mesa ridges to feed several "drinkers," or water troughs, spaced a mile or two apart.

With access to water on the mesa tops, the cattle don't need to venture into the valley to drink from the Rio Cebolla, a part of the mouse's protected habitat.

"As a result of that, the riparian areas have never looked as good as they do right now," Lucero said.

A second project involved burying 8,500 feet of water line running into a canyon ranchers lost access to when the Forest Service decommissioned a road leading into the canyon about 15 years ago and ripped out the water line in the process.

Lucero said ranchers have been trying to regain access to that area for years.

"It took a while to get through the lengthy (National Environmental Policy Act) process to make sure nothing is negatively affected," he said, adding that the water system is designed to be "wildlife friendly."

"We're not just watering livestock, we're watering wildlife."

That includes elk and bear.

Lucero said cameras have caught bears bathing in the water tanks.

That project involved many weekends of work by the ranchers, but all came together on a dedicated "field day" last summer organized by Mitchell, Trout Unlimited's public lands coordinator in the state. He helped assemble volunteers on a day trenches were dug and pipeline was laid. TU also kicked in $5,000 for the project.

Other possible projects in the future include more waterline extensions, purchasing portable corrals to assist ranchers in moving cattle from one area to another to prevent overgrazing, installation of rain-capturing stations, restoration of eroding areas in meadows and stream channels, forest thinning and creating cattle/wildlife gateways that also aims to eliminate problems ranchers have with people — often recreational ATV riders — cutting fences.

Another partner is The Nature Conservancy — a national group that works to conserve lands and waters — which has committed $72,000 to the Forest Service to pay for projects that improve the water-holding capacity of meadows and increase forage as part of a comprehensive approach to restoring the Rio Cebolla and other tributaries of the Jemez River and Rio Grande.

"The health of the land that is supporting grazing is as important as the grazing itself," said Laura McCarthy, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy. "They have to go hand in hand."

Ranchers, who work to maintain the 30 miles of water lines that help provide water to the San Diego and Cebolla-San Antonio grazing allotments at their own expense, have provided in-kind contributions in the form of labor and the use of equipment.

MOVING FORWARD

Playing a crucial role in the collaboration is the U.S. Forest Service, which in addition to being charged with managing national forest land also provides the bulk of the funding.

When plans for closing off riparian areas were announced, Lucero had harsh words for the agency, which he said at the time acted in haste and irresponsibly in erecting 8-foot-tall fences around habitat protected areas in 2014.

"What it was, was Fish and Wildlife was pushing the Forest Service to deal with it immediately," he said, adding that the federal agencies were under the threat of lawsuits by environmental groups if they didn't act to protect the mouse's habitat. "We were fighting with each other and we weren't making any progress. It caused a lot of friction and didn't result in a darned thing."

Now, he has nothing but praise for the Forest Service "from the regional office all the way on down."

A fresh face may have helped the situation. It was about the time Mitchell and Lucero started talking again that Brian Riley came on board as ranger for the Jemez district. He had no part in the previous dispute and that was probably a good thing, Riley said.

"I was lucky not to be there when the controversy happened," said Riley, who came in with a clean slate. "But now the sides are talking, we've got some collaboration and hopefully that will build synergy that will allow everyone to achieve their goals."

The collaboration started when Mitchell and Lucero decided to get together and talk about two years ago. They made acquaintances during the heat of the battle over protected areas, but then fell out of touch. They crossed paths again more than a year later and found common ground in agreeing that nothing would change if they didn't start talking.

"I just saw an opportunity there," Mitchell said. "I personally believe that grazing can be a tool to improve the land and I knew that Mike really wants to make it work."

"We just felt that there's got to be a way for everybody to get what they want out of the deal," Lucero said. "We brought the Forest Service in and then things started moving forward."

Riley said the alliance is a bit unusual.

"I'd say it's not common for a governmental agency and environmental groups to be working with grazing permitees on anything like this, but we think it makes a lot of sense," he said. "It's required a few compromises, but that's OK. We're talking now, and we're working together."

Mitchell said Trout Unlimited got involved partly because it would like to see more Rio Grande Cutthroat — the state fish — running in streams in the Jemez, but also because TU tries to do its part to be good land stewards and to work cooperatively with others.

"For trout people, it was coming to grips with the fact that we have to share lands and streams with grazers. Kicking out cattle for the trout was not going to be a long-term solution," he said.

Lucero said part of what riled ranchers was that over the years, they've felt they were already giving more than their fair share and weren't being listened to.

"The permittees were upset because they were constantly giving things up and were getting backed into a corner," he said. "But you have to listen to us because we know the land."

Lucero, whose family has been ranching in the area for four, going on five, generations, said he'd ultimately like to see the fences protecting the meadow jumping mouse's habitat taken down - not because he wants to stop protecting the mouse, but because they've found solutions that render fences unnecessary.

"This has been a good experience being able to move this forward and hopefully we can keep moving it forward," he said. "If we can make it so we'll be ranching for another four generations, I'll be satisfied. And I think we can do it."

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com