By Joseph Kolb
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Reuters) - A rural New Mexico county has voted to defy the federal government and give a rancher's cattle access to a watering hole fenced off by the Forest Service in the latest dispute over federal control of public land in the U.S. West.
Commissioners in Otero County voted 2-0 on Monday night to authorize Sheriff Benny House to open a gate allowing nearly 200 head of cattle into the 23-acre area despite Forest Service restrictions. A third commissioner was out of town for the vote.
"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."
But a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said the fence has also been there for decades, protecting a delicate ecosystem surrounding a natural spring as well as an endangered species of mouse from being trampled by cattle.
The dispute is the latest squabble between federal authorities and conservative states' rights advocates in the West, who want to take back millions of acres of public land from central government agencies.
It comes in the wake of an armed standoff last month between supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and federal land managers who sought unsuccessfully to seize his cattle over his longstanding refusal to pay grazing fees.
Bundy and his allies do not recognize federal authority over the land, which has been cleared of other ranchers' livestock to protect the habitat of the desert tortoise.
In the New Mexico case, Forest Service spokesman Mark Chavez said an old barbed-wire fence had recently been upgraded in cooperation with the rancher, and allowed room for a watering canal for the cattle without disturbing protected land.
He said the fence allows calves in and out of the area and there were other watering holes on the rancher's 28,850-acre grazing allotment some 45 miles southeast of Alamogordo.
Herrell said the rancher involved had complained repeatedly to the commission about the fence. The rancher was unavailable for comment on Tuesday afternoon
Chavez said the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse was expected to be listed as an endangered species in June, which would mean those 23 acres would be considered a critical habitat.
"I've never seen one of these mice, and the Forest Service claims they caught one last year," Herrell said.
While Otero County commissioners had given the sheriff approval to obtain a court order lifting the restrictions, Herrell said that House would not act until after local officials meet with the U.S. attorney for New Mexico on Friday.
(Reporting by Joseph Kolb and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jan Paschal)