A sheriff in New Mexico has been ordered by his own county to take a surprising action that could lead to a costly battle with the United States Forest Service (USFS).
Otero County commissioners passed a resolution this week that requires the sheriff to remove a lock from a USFS gate that keeps cattle from a creek known as Aqua Chiquita. The USFS contends the fence protects wildlife habitat, while the commissioners say that ranchers have the right to take needed water from the stream. The commissioners voted to take the action after the Service refused to unlock the gates. A specific species of a jumping mouse that may be listed this year as endangered lives on the land.
“The rancher in this case owns the water rights and has a right for their cattle to water,” rancher John Dalton Bell told El Paso TV station Channel 7.
The resolution said, in part, “The County is entreating the Sheriff of Otero County to immediately take steps to remove or open gates that are unlawfully denying citizens access to their private property rights.”
“Now the procurement is since they won’t, then we’ve instructed Sheriff Benny House to unlock those fences,” Otero Commissioner Tommie Herrell said.
USFS officials say the cattle already have access to the water, although ranchers say the cattle cannot find the tiny opening.
“We’ve provided reasonable access to the water even if there is a water right on these sites,” USFS Forest Supervisor Travis Moseley said.
The only action the Service plans to take against the county is to notify the US attorney, Moseley said.
County Wants to Avoid Confrontation
The commissioners’ resolution may not lead to a confrontation because the sheriff has decided to hold off on any action until he meets with the US attorney’s office on Friday, Channel 7 reported.
“I want to wait and give the US attorney’s office a fair shot at getting this thing resolved,” House said.
Said Bell, “We want to follow the right legal procedures and we need to go through the hoops right.”
Dispute Involves Historic Water Rights
“Fencing our cattle off of the water denies us our usage rights, and the cattle are only there three months in a normal rain year and six months during times of drought,” rancher Judyann Holcomb Meideros told The Alamogordo Daily News. “During the drought, our cattle have to walk extended lengths to reach water. The fences also cause the cattle to use the heavily used county road, and we have had cattle hit and killed or severely crippled or damaged by the impacts.”
Meideros is one of a number of ranchers who waters cattle in Aqua Chiquita, a small stream in the Lincoln National Forest in the Sacramento Mountains of Southern New Mexico. The ranchers contend that they have been watering cattle in the stream since the 1950s.
“I have conferred with United States Department of Agriculture counsel on the issues outlined in your April 25 cease and desist letter,” Mosely told the commissioners. “I have been advised that the actions the Lincoln National Forest employees have taken and are planning to take, are on sound legal footing and within our jurisdiction. As Forest Supervisor, I have an affirmative responsibility to implement and find balance within applicable federal and adopted state laws, such as Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act, Endangered Species Act and a myriad of others.”
Said Otero County attorney Blair Dunn, “They (USFS) have no lawful right to the stream, so to pen something off for wildlife to go drink and to appropriate that water for wildlife when they don’t have the necessary legal permits or rights to do so amounts to an illegal diversion of water.”
Who is right here — the county or the USFS? Tell us in the comments below.