Earlier this month, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association and the Otero County Cattleman’s Association, alleging that designations of critical habitat for the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse hurt people who graze cattle and use water on public lands.
The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse lives in northern New Mexico, eastern Arizona and southern Colorado along La Plata and Montezuma counties (in 2016, some were found near the Durango-La Plata County Airport).
From nose to tail, the mouse is about 9 inches long, although about 5 inches of that is tail. It is dark brown on top, yellow-brown on its flanks and white on the belly – a comely creature. It has very large feet, the better to jump with; it can leap as high as 8 feet when it is disturbed.
This description is important not because you or a cattleman or both are likely to see one, but because you are not. The mouse inhabits wetlands alongside creeks and streams, where it eats seeds, primarily. It is solitary, docile and usually nocturnal. It mates and eats for two to three months of the year and then hibernates roughly from September to May.
It has a lifespan of about two years. Despite its showy jumping, it is shy, although researchers from New Mexico State University did manage to fit them with very small radio collars.
What good is it? And why is it worth protecting? These are sad, excellent questions.
The mouse is food for owls, hawks, weasels and foxes, and, when it is not being eaten, it spreads seeds. It is an indicator of the health of waterways.
It was determined to be endangered in 2014, and in 2016, FWS designated its critical habitat, which also happened to be where cattle were grazed on allotments in New Mexico. This is not entirely a coincidence, since grazing cattle can degrade waterways.
The plaintiffs are venerable. As the suit notes, they come from the Hispanic ranching families of New Mexico, “whose histories date back to the original founding of the livestock industry in North America, beginning with the colonization of the area by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. The majority of the members trace their family traditions back to this founding date and represent the longest unbroken history of any non-indigenous people in this nation.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is comparatively young, having only been founded in 1940. For that matter, the U.S. is quite young compared to the tenancy of the Hispanic ranching families of New Mexico.
But the mouse likely has lived its brief lives there, one after another, for a million years.
The Pacific Legal Foundation is dedicated to promoting individual economic freedom. Fish and Wildlife errs, it contends, in not considering how protecting the furtive mouse would limit ranchers’ access to waterways on public lands and how this is a cost disproportionate to any supposed benefit to the mouse.
We have little idea how the suit will fare. There are finer points of law to be considered, particularly with regard to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and we wish the ranchers well in the pursuit of their ancient livelihood.
But there are also the finer points of creation to be considered, we suppose.