January 23, 2017

Around NM: federal fallout, wolves, methane and more

Laura Paskus

It’s been a rough few days for people concerned about climate change and the environment.

By the time Trump gave his inaugural address, mentions of climate change already disappeared from the White House website.

As the New York Times reported, the purge was part of the routine “full digital turnover” of whitehouse.gov. But it did place into “sharp relief some of the starkest differences” between presidents Obama and Trump.

On Friday, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus also issued a freeze on new or pending regulations—which included four U.S. Department of Energy efficiency standards.

That same day, after a National Park Service employee retweeted two news reports—about the disappearance of the White House climate pages (among others, like those related to civil rights) and the administration’s smaller inaugural crowd—government Twitter accounts were temporarily shut down.

On Saturday, the accounts were reopened, the two Tweets had been deleted, and NPS issued an apology.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said the incident was reminiscent of George W. Bush’s administration:

The Bush circle issued “talking points” from which park superintendents could not deviate, fired the Chief of the U.S. Park Police for admitting to a reporter that she lacked adequate staff to cover all responsibilities and even tried to rewrite national park historic exhibits to remove anti-war, pro-choice and gay rights marches and to feature Republican figures and themes.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has canceled a climate change summit planned for February.

It’s hard to look away from immediate changes to environmental policy on a federal level, but there are still local environmental issues that merit attention in New Mexico right now.

Lobo news

Last week, the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver heard oral arguments on a battle between states and the federal government over the Endangered Species Act.

Release of Mexican wolf into Apache National Forest

Via FWS, courtesy of George Andrejko, Arizona Game and Fish Department

Release of Mexican wolf into Apache National Forest

The case came after the U.S. Department of the Interior asked the court to overturn a preliminary injunction that prevents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state and tribal partners from releasing captive-bred Mexican gray wolves into the wild without the state of New Mexico’s approval.

Since 1998, the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program has been releasing wolves in an effort to reintroduce the canine, which was extinct in the United States by the mid-20th century.

The program has been a political lightning rod since its inception.

During the administration of George W. Bush, for example, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish under Gov. Bill Richardson favored the program. Then, as the biologists gained more support under President Barack Obama’s administration, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s Game Commission started erecting roadblocks to the recovery plan.

In 2011, the commission ended New Mexico’s participation in the program. And in 2015, it voted to block the federal government  from releasing any new captive-raised wolves in the state.

Legally, the federal agency could still release wolves, which it did.

But New Mexico sued, and last year a federal judge blocked any new releases.

Environmental groups, like Defenders of Wildlife, support the federal government’s appeal.  According to court documents filed by the nonprofit, New Mexico hasn’t shown how releases harm its ability to manage elk herds nor proven how the releases harm state sovereignty.

Nearly 20 states filed a brief siding with New Mexico. Representing Spur Ranch Cattle Company, the Mountain States Legal Foundation also filed a friend-of-the-court brief.

There’s no deadline for the court to make a decision, but environmental advocates hope the court decides—in their favor—before spring, when biologists typically release captive-raised wolves into the wild.

Project personnel attempt to dart and capture a Mexican wolf during the helicopter operation

Photo Courtesy of the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team

Project personnel attempt to dart and capture a Mexican wolf during the helicopter operation

“The Mexican gray wolf is racing extinction in the wild and the state of New Mexico is paving the way,” Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife Bryan Bird told NM Political Report. “It will be critical that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service release new wolves into the wild population this spring and we hope that the appeals court will reach a favorable decision lifting the injunction in time.”

Meanwhile, biologists with the program are currently conducting annual wolf population surveys within the recovery area, which includes parts of southern New Mexico and Arizona.

Along with the aerial surveys, biologists will also capture wolves that need new or replacement radio telemetry collars and wolves that appear sick or injured.

According to a press release from the Fish and Wildlife Service:

Captures are made with an anesthetizing dart operated by a biologist or veterinarian aboard the helicopter. The wolf is immobilized and brought by air to a staging area for processing and any necessary veterinary care. It is then returned to the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area and released.

Weather permitting, the survey flights will continue through Feb. 4.

Court decides on methane waste rule

In Wyoming last week, a judge rejected efforts to stop the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from implementing a 2016 rule designed to cut methane emissions from oil and gas wells and pipelines on federal and tribal lands.

The rule is aimed specifically at reducing waste from venting, flaring and leaks.

During a call with reporters last year announcing the new rule, top Department of the Interior officials said it would help cut greenhouse gas emissions and stop wasting a product that could be sold.

“The monetary and social costs of releasing natural gas into the atmosphere are clear, significant, and dangerous,” said then-Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider.

She added that 375 billion cubic feet of natural gas—or enough to power more than 5 million households for a year—were lost to venting and flaring between 2009 and 2014.

The rule is opposed by the Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which both say the BLM doesn’t have the authority to regulate air pollution. Some states, including Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota sided with industry.

Environmental groups like Earthworks and the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the states of New Mexico and California intervened in support of the BLM’s rule.

In its conclusion, the court ruled that since Congress gave BLM the authority to make rules that prevent “undue waste of mineral resources,” an injunction would not be granted.

Snowpack’s up

Even people living in Albuquerque can see that recent storms have been good to the mountains.

As former newspaperman John Fleck, in his new position as director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, pointed out on Twitter, San Juan River snowpack is 71 percent above average.

Earlier in the month, he also shared a water forecast graph showing that storms in December and early January had added 500,000 acre feet to the 2017 runoff forecast for the Rio Grande.

That’s all great news for now, since cities and rural irrigators alike largely rely on spring snowmelt for water supplies.

Over the next few months, everyone will keep paying close attention. In recent years, New Mexico’s warmer-than-normal spring temperatures have thrown off snowmelt predictions. Dense snowpack now doesn’t always translate into reliable runoff at the time when farmers and water managers need it the most.

And speaking of water managers, it’s worth paying attention to what happens with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s climate programs in the coming weeks and months.

During the Obama administration, the water management agency was actively studying water and climate issues in the western United States, including New Mexico.

Now is probably a good time to download the agency’s Upper Rio Grande Impact Assessment report and Santa Fe Basin Study.