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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal officials are closing off sections of national forest land in southern New Mexico to protect an endangered mouse and keep people from getting tangled up in barbed wire and electric fencing meant to ward off cattle.
Supervisors with the Lincoln National Forest say campers are tearing down fences that had been put in place to protect the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and that camping along three streams in the area is damaging the rodent's habitat.
The special closure order marks the latest development in a dispute in New Mexico over access to public land and water that has pitted ranchers and some state lawmakers against the U.S. Forest Service.
The agency initially began ordering closures and installing fences in the Lincoln and Santa Fe forests in 2014 after the mouse was listed as endangered. That spurred criticism that the federal government was trampling on property and water rights in New Mexico as it had in other Western states.
Forest officials maintain that they have a responsibility under the federal Endangered Species Act to protect the mouse, which is found in New Mexico, Arizona and a small portion of Colorado.
The mouse depends on tall grass along streams and in other sections of land along rivers and streams.
"That's the hope, to keep people from driving on it and keep out grazing so we can let that vegetation grow," said Ciara Cusack with the Sacramento Ranger District.
Fencing alone hasn't worked, so the latest order is aimed at protecting habitat as well as public safety, officials said. "It's a human-safety factor because people are handling the fencing, laying it on the ground and driving over it," Cusack said.
Ranchers have been trying to keep cattle out of prohibited areas, but that task has become more difficult as campers and recreationists take down the fencing, she said, adding that the Forest Service is trying to identify more long-term solutions beyond electric fencing.
The closures along Aqua Chiquita, Rio Penasco and Wills Canyon are effective immediately and will last through the end of October.
There are exceptions, but forest employees plan to monitor for violators. Anyone caught in the forbidden zones could face jail time and fines up to $5,000.
Blair Dunn, an attorney who represents some of the critics who have been fighting the Forest Service over the mouse, said the latest closure order is not unexpected.
"They are acting to deprive all people that seek to use the land from doing so, and they are doing this in violation of our supreme state water law," Dunn said in an email.
Dunn and Republican lawmakers have called on Gov. Susana Martinez and State Engineer Tom Blaine to defend the state's water rights. While acknowledging the importance of the ranching industry in New Mexico, Blaine has said his authority is limited.
Federal wildlife managers announced earlier this year that nearly 22 square miles in parts of the three Western states would be set aside as critical habitat for the mouse, affecting the management of vegetation along 170 miles of streams throughout the region.
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