The U.S. Forest Service has struck a deal with environmentalists by promising to better monitor cattle in fragile riparian areas in Arizona and New Mexico.

The agreement will protect the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse from extermination, while also protecting other species dependent on hard-hit riparian areas in two national forests.

The Apache-Sitgreaves Forest had already come to an agreement to install or repair 14 miles of fencing and check the fencing regularly in riparian areas where the mouse has been documented.

Now, the Gila National Forest in New Mexico has signed onto a similar agreement.

The Center for Biological Diversity has been filing lawsuits and administrative appeals since 1997 to protect the tiny rodent, which relies on streamside grass and wet meadows to survive. The Forest Service agreed to remove cattle from sensitive areas in 1998 and install fencing to keep them out. However, environmentalists sued again in 2020, claiming the Forest Service had failed to maintain the fences.

The lawsuit alleges that years of uncontrolled cattle grazing have stripped key riparian areas of streamside willow, cottonwood and alder. If allowed free access to streams in the spring, cattle chomp on the tender shoots of the trees — eventually removing the streamside vegetation. Cattle also trample banks, eliminating fish habitat and causing streams to get wide, shallow and warm.

Ranchers who fence cattle out of streams in the spring and provide alternative water sources can graze cattle in allotments with riparian areas without damage. However, that requires expensive fencing and ongoing maintenance — as well as wells to provide water during the spring and early summer. The drought has complicated those efforts, making the cattle more dependent on the riparian areas than ever.

Some 90% of wildlife species in the Southwest depend on those riparian areas during some portion of their life cycle. Moreover, leafy stream side areas in Arizona and New Mexico provide migratory pathways for most of the songbirds in North America. However, grazing, dams and wells have severely damaged more than 90% of riparian areas in Arizona, according to various studies.

Endangered species reliant on the same habitat as the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse include the southwestern willow flycatcher, yellow-billed cuckoo, Gila chub, loach minnow, spikedace, Chiricahua leopard frog and narrow-headed and northern Mexican garter snakes.

“The government agrees with us that livestock grazing and endangered species don’t mix,” Center for Biological Diversity endangered species director Brian Segee said. “It’s too bad it took another lawsuit to force the Forest Service to keep cows off southwestern rivers, but let’s hope this time it’ll stick.”

The agreement gives the Forest Service three months to conduct initial inspections and then requires new inspections of the fence lines every six months to repair breaks. The Forest Service also agreed to investigate reports of cattle inside the fencing within two days and remove any errant cattle within 14 days.

The Forest Service also agreed to pay some $47,500 in the center’s legal fees.

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