April 19, 2022

Federal appeals court rejects ranchers’ bid to overturn critical habitat designation for endangered mouse

Jennifer Frey/USFWS

A federal appeals court rejected two cattle groups’ arguments that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inadequately evaluated the economic implications of designating critical habitat for the meadow jumping mouse in New Mexico.

The Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association and the Otero County Cattleman’s Association sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018 following the 2016 designation of critical habitat. The ranchers who belong to those groups don’t own land in the designated critical habitat, however they have federal permits to graze cattle on allotments in the area. The rangers argued that the critical habitat designation will increase costs, impact their cattles’ health and lower property values. Private property sales can include federal allotments.

Because of those reasons, the two groups asked the court to overturn the designation of critical habitat.

The appeals court issued a ruling on Friday rejecting their arguments and upheld a 2020 district court decision. The court also found that the Fish and Wildlife Service adequately considered how the designation would impact the ranchers’ water rights.

In the order rejecting the arguments, the court stated that the Endangered Species Act does not require the Fish and Wildlife Service to “analyze all economic impacts—no matter how speculative—of designating critical habitat.”

The ranchers were particularly concerned with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to exclude two units from the critical habitat designation.

“The record shows that the agency considered the benefits of exclusion and weighed those against the benefits of inclusion,” the court order states.

The order further states that the Fish and Wildlife Service found numerous benefits to including those units and few benefits in excluding them.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the cost of the critical habitat designation would be $23 million, the majority of which would come from efforts to reduce the impacts of livestock grazing.

Cattle tend to graze in the riparian areas that the meadow jumping mouse relies on and the livestock can trample steam banks, cause burrows to collapse, compact soil and modify the plant species that occur there. This can lead to a reduction in plant diversity and riparian shrubs. The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed building fences to keep the cattle away from the sensitive riparian areas and reducing the number of cattle that are allowed to graze in allotments within the critical habitat.

The majority of meadow jumping mice live in New Mexico, with some small populations in Colorado and Arizona. The Fish and Wildlife Service began taking steps in 2013 to list the meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species. That led to the designation of 14,000 acres in three states as critical habitat. The critical habitat designation was finalized in 2016. Critical habitat designations limit how that land is used. 

Environmental advocates who pushed for the endangered species designation praised the appeal court’s decision.

“We are in the midst of dual extinction and climate crises, and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse’s habitat is seriously threatened by livestock grazing, stream dewatering, drought and fire,” Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, WildEarth Guardians’ legal director, said in a press release. “This decision could mean the difference between extinction and survival for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.”