New Mexico county orders sheriff to defy feds in new showdown over grazing lands

A New Mexico county may have touched off another showdown with the federal government over publicly owned grazing land.

Otero County commissioners voted 2-0 on Monday to authorize Sheriff Benny House to open a gate to allow about 200 cattle onto 23 acres of federal land despite government restrictions.

A third commissioner was out of town when the vote was taken, Reuters reported.

"We are reacting to the infringement of the U.S. Forest Service on the water rights of our land-allotment owners," Otero County Commissioner Tommie Herrell told Reuters. "People have been grazing there since 1956."

The Forest Service fenced off access to a creek fed by a natural spring, saying the cattle would damage the habitat of the meadow jumping mouse – which is expected to be listed next month as an endangered species.

"I've never seen one of these mice, and the Forest Service claims they caught one last year," Herrell said.

Ranchers are angry that the Forest Service has reinforced locks and fences to keep out their cattle, which they say are thirsty from a long drought in the state.

They also argue that the land is owned by a local rancher.

“The Forest Service has no right to appropriate water under New Mexico law,” said Blair Dunn, an attorney for Otero County.

But a spokesman for the Forest Service said the fence has been in place for decades to protect the delicate ecosystem around the Agua Chiquita and the mouse from the cattle.

Forest Service spokesman Mark Chavez said rangers upgraded a barbed-wire fence in cooperation with the rancher to allow room for a watering canal for the cattle without damaging nearby land.

He also said there were other watering holes on the rancher’s 28,850-acre grazing allotment.

The dispute echoes similar cases throughout the West, pitting the government and conservationists against ranchers – such as Cliven Bundy -- who claim grazing rights to federally owned land.

Bundy’s case has drawn intense media coverage after armed militia groups forced the Bureau of Land Management to abandon its roundup of the Nevada rancher’s herd, which the government claims has been illegally grazing for decades on federal land.

Bundy and his supporters say they do not recognize federal authority over the land.

[Image via USFWS/Flickr]