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How a Single Mouse Might Stop a Herd of Cattle

The fence installed in 2012 to keep Judy Ann Holcomb's cattle away from a creek.

One tiny mouse is at the center of a big controversy in eastern New Mexico.

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service commissioned a study of the Agua Chiquita Canyon in Otero County and found one New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse on land where Judyann Holcomb Medeiros' family has been grazing cattle for decades.

That discovery led the U.S. Forest Service to construct a pipe and cable fence that stretches more than 2 miles along both sides of a small creek, with just a couple of small gaps where cattle can access drinking water. The fence is meant to keep Medeiros' cows out of the area and protect the mouse, which was under consideration to be added to the endangered species list.

The fence installed in 2012 to keep Judy Ann Holcomb's cattle away from a creek. The fence the U.S. Forest Service installed in 2012 to keep Judyann Holcomb Medeiros' cattle away from a creek. (Tom Orr/TheBlaze TV)

"When they were starting to put up the fence in 2012, they did say that they wanted to, this fence very secure, because it would help to prevent the listing of the mouse," Medeiros told TheBlaze TV's For the Record.

The next year, Medeiros said, the Fish and Wildlife Service was back to confirm that the mouse still lived in the area.

"There were 75 to 100 traps just very close to each other. So I knew they were trying to find the mouse," she said. "The fellow that works for us did ask the workers who were baiting the traps how many they found. They saw none, and trapped none. And then, this spring, for my annual meeting with the Forest Service, I asked them how many mice were found, and they said none."

The New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse was added to the endangered species list in July 2014.

Medeiros says the way the fence is built means it has a huge impact on her cattle, which may have to walk more than a mile just to get a drink of water — but does nothing to protect the mouse from other large animals.

"It is put up with pipe and then cables on the lower areas, so that it’s not elk-proof, feral hogs can get in there, any type of other animals, small mammals can get in there. Birds, even people can get in there fairly easily," she said. "The fence only excludes cattle."

Cattle walk around the outside of a fence around a small creek in Otero County, New Mexico. (Tom Orr/TheBlaze TV) Cattle walk around the outside of a fence around a small creek in Otero County, New Mexico. (Tom Orr/TheBlaze TV)

Gary Stone, president of the Otero County Cattlemen's Association, told For the Record that the fence is just one symptom of a much bigger problem for ranchers.

"I think there’s agenda there against the livestock industry as a whole," Stone said, pointing to other examples of environmental activism that have hurt the region such as the Mexican Spotted Owl, which was listed as a "threatened species" in 1993.

The listing protected the forests where the owl lived, and Stone says it effectively killed the logging industry in the region.

"We watched a thriving industry shut down," Stone said. "We watched families go hungry, move away. We watched the school close. We watched the economic stability of a community pretty much shut down and a custom and a culture that just vanished with that spotted owl."

Medeiros said this was not the first time the government has tried to fence off the water to keep her cattle out.

Judy Ann Holcomb, the New Mexico rancher impacted by the fence. Judyann Holcomb Medeiros, the New Mexico rancher impacted by the fence. (Tom Orr/TheBlaze TV)

"Growing up in the mountains, this stream never had any fish, and when I came and helped with fall roundup in the ‘80s, I was shocked to find fish in this stream," she said. "My brother told me that the Forest Service had stocked the stream with fish."

Those fish, trucked in by the government, led to the first temporary fence in the area.

"In 1997 the Forest Service issued a decision memo, stating that they were going to fence the Barrel Springs and Sand Springs," she said. "To keep it nice for the fish that the Forest Service had stocked in the stream at that time."

"There are no native fish whatsoever, there can’t be native fish. This area goes through periods of drought when the streams are dry."

Medeiros said, "We do see that down the line that the ultimate goal is probably to get rid of livestock grazing in the forest, and use it for other purposes."

Stone says that if increased restrictions on land use do end up driving ranchers out of business, the environmental impact could be disastrous.

"Once the livestock industry is gone, they’re gonna realize that nobody’s pumping water to their wildlife. Nobody’s fixing the fences. Nobody’s doing the brush control," he said.

"They think everything’s gonna be peachy if we’re gone. I think they’ll find out something different. I think that they’ll find out that we, we are good stewards of the forest and the land. It’s our livelihood. We have to be."

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