March 8, 2023

Pared-down wildlife corridors bill moves forward

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Lawmakers on a House committee unanimously approved a plan to leverage state funds to draw matching federal money to work on wildlife corridor projects around the state.

Senate Bill 72, which has $5 million committed to it in the state budget proposal, could bring in $20 million in federal funds to allow the state Department of Transportation to keep working on road projects to protect both animals and people.

“From both the wildlife connectivity and human safety standpoint this is incredibly important,” Michael Dax, the western program director for Wildlands Network, said in an interview after the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee voted 6-0 Tuesday to approve the measure.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who introduced the bill, originally hoped for an appropriation of $50 million, but acknowledged after the vote that “fifty million was a pipe dream.”

She added she hopes to up the $5 million state commitment to $10 million by the end of the legislative session on March 18. 

She said the state can leverage the funds in an 80/20 federal grant initiative called the Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, which is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and includes $350 million to create wildlife corridors over a period of five years.

Dax said $125 million will be available in the first cycle of the grant program, which should open up requests for proposals in the near future. 

Stewart said the funding is to help implement the state Wildlife Corridors Act, which was passed and signed into law in 2019 but still needs hundreds of millions of dollars to come to fruition. 

The Wildlife Corridors Act requires state agencies to analyze different data points — including automobile crashes involving wildlife — to prioritize areas where wildlife passageways, including overpasses, underpasses and game fencing should be built to protect both people  and animals.

Vehicular crashes involving animals in the state come with some sobering facts.

According to a June 2022 action plan compiled by the state Department of Transportation and the Department of Game and Fish, there were 15,486 reported incidents on New Mexico’s roadways between 2002 and 2018.

The victims are not always animals. Last August, a state Department of Transportation official told lawmakers on the Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee there have been at least three human fatalities from such crashes, the most recent in 2020.

The state has identified five top wildlife-vehicle crash hotspots as priority projects under the plan: Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe, the village of Cuba in Sandoval County and the Southern New Mexico communities of Bent, Ruidoso and Silver City. 

Dax and Stewart said if New Mexico can leverage federal funding through the corridors pilot program it can prioritize finishing the first phase of wildlife corridors in the Cuba region. The projected cost of the project is about $45 million, Stewart said.

Stewart said she hopes to get $20 million or $30 million for the initiative in next year’s legislative session so the state can keep tackling the priority projects. 

HB 72, which already cleared the Senate, next goes to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. If the appropriations committee approves it, it will go to the floor of the House of Representatives.