The lesser prairie chicken can’t catch a break. The fowl, a relative of the sage grouse, has the misfortune of calling portions of the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico home. Grazing, oil and gas development and water scarcity in southeastern New Mexico has decimated the bird’s population in New Mexico over the last 25 years.
The species was briefly listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014, but after a series of lawsuits from industry groups, the bird’s listing is currently caught in bureaucratic limbo. Officials in southeastern New Mexico have pledged to keep fighting against attempts to protect it. And now, tweaks to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) could spell extinction for the bird.
As temperatures climb to triple digits and fires rage from California to Colorado, Western lawmakers and the Trump administration are turning up the heat on the Endangered Species Act. On July 12, the conservative Western Congressional Caucus, which was founded to “fight federal overreach” and advocates for extractive industries, introduced a nine bill ESA reform package. And in a separate move, the Trump administration is proposing to change how federal agencies implement the law. A common thread in the bills is a push to give more authority to the Interior Secretary and states. The proposed rule changes dial back federal agencies’ ability to pursue policies that hamper development.
In springtime, rivers are supposed to swell with snowmelt, filling their channels and triggering fish to spawn. This year, however, the Middle Rio Grande has already dried south of Socorro. Record-low snowpack in the mountains upstream means that the state’s largest river is in trouble this year. And so are the species and communities that depend on it. Earlier this week, biologists headed to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to start scooping up endangered fish from pools and puddles and relocating them to a stretch of the river that is still flowing.
Prairie dogs are complicated creatures. In addition to confounding property owners by burrowing on land slated for shopping malls or horse pastures, they sometimes defy accepted biological principles. Unlike many social animals, instead of dispersing as they age, prairie dogs stick close to home, preferring to live cooperatively with relatives. In fact, prairie dogs are actually more likely to immigrate after their kin disappear. And at least one prairie dog expert thinks the socially complex animals speak a real language.
From downtown Albuquerque, it’s a straight shot south down Second Street to Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. Along the way, drivers will pass railyards and baseball fields, salvage yards and irrigated fields. Jets taking off from the Sunport rumble low and loud, and plumes of contamination, from military and industrial activities, lurk in the waters belowground. Pulling into the parking lot at Valle de Oro, near the southern edge of the Mountain View Neighborhood, first-time visitors might pause and wonder why they’re there, exactly. Squint, and they’ll see cottonwoods of the bosque in the distance, and an old dairy barn painted with images of dancers.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection will begin constructing the first segment of President Trump’s border wall in November through a national wildlife refuge, using money it’s already received from Congress. That’s what a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official recently told a nonprofit group that raises money to support two national wildlife refuges in South Texas, according to the group’s vice president. “I was alarmed,” said Jim Chapman of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. “It was not good news.” For the past six months, CBP has been quietly preparing a site to build a nearly 3-mile border barrier through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, according to The Texas Observer.
Just a week after the announcement that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle would be reassigned, the agency issued a notice saying it will give states the authority to decide where and when Mexican gray wolves can be released. Related story: Interior Department reorganization will hit New Mexico’s landscapes, communities
On Thursday, the agency released a draft revision to its Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, which guides plans to remove the wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Under the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, New Mexico has opposed wolf reintroductions, and in 2011, the Game Commission ended the state’s participation in the program. The commission also voted to stop the federal government from releasing any new captive-raised wolves in the state and sued. A federal judge then blocked any new releases.
The Trump administration reassigned several top-level employees in its reorganization of the U.S. Department of the Interior. That includes Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, and Weldon “Bruce” Loudermilk, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The New Mexico State Director for the Bureau of Land Management, Amy Lueders, whose background is in economics, is also being reassigned to the Fish and Wildlife Service.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Support New Mexico’s best environmental coverage. [/perfectpullquote]
In a state like New Mexico, with more than 20 American Indian tribes, vast tracts of public lands, federal water projects, myriad endangered species issues, large-scale oil and gas development and existing and proposed mines on public lands, the staffing changes—and what they signal— could have deep and long-lasting effects on the state’s landscapes, communities and future. During a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall questioned Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the staffing changes, slated to take place at the end of June.
Even before this week’s storm, the Rio Grande was ripping through its channel. Winter storms had packed the mountains with snow, and warm March temperatures sent snowmelt down the river. “The snowmelt is coming earlier than we’d like, but if there’s enough snow up there, it may just continue, and it may just be a great year,” said Carolyn Donnelly, head of water operations for the Albuquerque Area Office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That agency is responsible for operating most of the dams and reservoirs on the Rio Grande and making sure water gets to downstream cities and farmers. For the first time in more than nearly 15 years, the agency and its partners won’t have to hustle to make sure the Albuquerque stretch of the river doesn’t dry during the heat of the summer.
When speaking to a congressional committee more than two decades ago about a bill that would have made sweeping changes to the federal Endangered Species Act, Kathleen Benedetto said the landmark 1973 law was flawed for not taking “into consideration that extinctions are part of that natural process.”
“If you look at the geological record, you can see throughout time that extinctions occurred,” Benedetto said in the 1995 House Committee on Natural Resources hearing. “We’re all aware that the dinosaurs were here for millions of years, and they’re not here any longer, and they disappeared long before man ever emerged as a species.”
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Benedetto co-founded the Women’s Mining Coalition and spoke on behalf of Grassroots ESA Coalition, an anti-regulation group aligned with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Now, Benedetto is one of the new special assistants to Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. She’s reportedly in the Bureau of Land Management after working on Donald Trump’s transition team and as a Republican legislative staffer for the House Natural Resources Committee. As a GS-15 employee she’ll be earning between $101,630-$132,122 per year.