NM Game and Fish urges people to be ‘bear aware’ during drought

Drought doesn’t only impact the availability of food and water for people and, as dry conditions continue to grip the state even amid the start of monsoon season, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has urged residents to be “bear aware.”

Bear-human encounters tend to increase in drought times as wildlife moves into suburbs or even cities in search of resources. 

In a press release issued earlier this month, Rick Winslow, a bear and cougar biologist with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said that droughts have historically led to more conflicts with bears “not only at camping and picnic sites, but also in more populated areas.”

Nick Forman is the carnivore and small mammal program manager for the department. He spoke with NM Political Report via phone about this topic. Bears, he said, are omnivorous and rely on food sources like acorns, currant berries and juniper berries. Last fall, he said, the state had decent production of these food sources and, currently, the juniper bushes have berries on them and wildflowers can also provide bears with food. “There’s definitely available food out there,” he said.

PRC hearing examiners: PNM ‘scheming’ and engaging in ‘guileful manipulation’ of the Energy Transition Act

Late Friday, hearing examiners from the state entity that regulates electric utilities issued a recommendation to require the state’s largest electric utility to issue rate credits for customers. In the 119-page recommended decision, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission hearing examiners, Anthony Medeiros and Ashley Schannauer, used words like “scheming” and “guileful manipulation” of the Energy Transition Act to describe Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM)’s plans to keep customers paying for the San Juan Generating Station after the power plant closes. This comes as the PNM prepares to end its operation of the San Juan Generating Station once new solar resources come online. These solar projects were initially scheduled to be completed by the end of this month, but supply chain challenges have pushed the completion date back, and the plant is now expected to close at the end of September. One unit of the plant is scheduled to close at the end of this month and the other will close at the end of September.

EPA, state reach settlement over Gold King Mine spill

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to pay the state of New Mexico $32 million as part of a settlement announced Thursday in the Gold King Mine spill case. In August 2015, EPA crews triggered a mine spill in Colorado that sent heavy-metal laden water into the Animas River, which flows through northwest New Mexico. “There were failures in the system and there were a lot of questions and there was a lot of fear in this community,” Attorney General Hector Balderas said. “I still remember coming in that day, and it was chaotic.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Balderas, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney and EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe met with reporters and community leaders at the Farmington Museum to announce the settlement. Balderas said that, in the wake of the mine spill, New Mexico officials realized “the state was going to have to get into a fistfight to really be a voice and to assess damages.”

While EPA Administrator Michael Regan did not attend the event, the agency sent out a statement following the announcement.

PRC opens inquiry into utility vegetation management practices

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission unanimously approved an order to open an inquiry into the practices of utilities when it comes to the vegetiative management. The order issued Wednesday requires investor-owned electric utilities and rural electric cooperatives to provide the regulatory body with copies of their current practices and plans for managing vegetation as well as any other policies they might have to address wildfire risks. This comes as utilities have been under increased scrutiny following major fires that have occurred in the western United States that were caused by electric infrastructure. In New Mexico, the McBride Fire that killed two people and destroyed hundreds of homes and properties near Ruidoso likely started after high winds caused a tree to fall onto power lines owned by the Public Service Company of New Mexico. In other parts of the west, the deadly Camp Fire that burned through the town of Paradise, California, in 2018 was caused by electric utility infrastructure.

Amid Biden’s visit, push continues to get additional help for fire victims

Rock Ulibarri says he tries to be self-sufficient, including growing food and ranching at his northern New Mexico home. But the merged Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires that forced evacuations in several counties have made this hard for his family as they’ve lost food and face increased costs. 

As the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire continues to char land in northern New Mexico, lawmakers and people impacted by the blaze say it is important that the federal government takes responsibility for starting the fire and provides compensation and assistance to those impacted. As of Monday morning, the fire had burned more than 320,000 acres and was 70 percent contained. It is the largest of several fires currently burning in New Mexico and is also the largest fire in the state’s recorded history. The second largest fire in state history, the Black Fire, is also still burning and has engulfed more than 311,000 acres.

Indian Youth Service Corps aims to combat climate change, empower Native youth

The U.S. Department of the Interior launched the new Indian Youth Service Corps and announced the program guidelines on Friday. This program—which was created through the John S. McCain III 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act—is modeled after other successful programs like the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps. The Department of the Interior is providing $2 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, $700,000 to the National Park Service and $600,000 to the Bureau of Reclamation to establish this program. Its goal is to provide opportunities for Native Americans ages 16 to 30 to gain work experience in the natural resources field while also preserving traditional practices of land stewardship and creating awareness of Indigenous culture and history. During a press conference on Friday, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland spoke about her Laguna Pueblo connections and being in the outdoors with her grandfather.

Phase one of gas waste rule wraps up, OCD launches new public portal

As the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Oil Conservation Division reviewed gas capture data submitted by operators, the regulators noticed several companies reporting more than 100 percent gas capture, which OCD Director Adrienne Sandoval said is impossible. Phase one of the natural gas waste rule, which required data collection to gauge how much gas the operators are currently capturing, has now wrapped up and the second phase is beginning. In phase two, operators will be required to attain increasing rates of gas capture on an annual basis. 

Sandoval said the OCD sent letters to 10 companies requiring them to undergo a third-party audit and warned 74 companies to check their data after reporting more than 100 percent gas capture on either their first or second quarterly report. “That gas capture percentage is important because that is the starting point for operators as they move forward and try to meet the compliance requirements of this rule,” she said. All operators must achieve 98 percent gas capture by 2026, but some operators have farther to go to reach that target.

Land acquisition near Mt. Taylor brings sacred sites out of private ownership, preserves habitat

Sacred lands that have been cut off from access will once again be accessible to the public, including the Indigenous people who once served as stewards of those lands. Conservation groups, tribes, federal officials and state leaders teamed up to acquire 54,000 acres near Laguna and west of Albuquerque. Part of this land has already been transferred to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish for management while the rest will be transferred over the next five years. This purchase includes two adjoining properties and has been referred to as L Bar Ranch. It will, in the future, be combined with the adjacent Marquez Wildlife Management area. 

In addition to increasing access to recreation, the acquisition will protect the habitat and archaeological sites near Mount Taylor, a composite volcano that is sacred to several Native American groups.

Torrez wins Democratic Party nomination for attorney general

Raúl Torrez won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, defeating Brian Colón. Torrez is a former federal prosecutor whose resume includes attending both Harvard and Stanford universities. He currently serves as the Bernalillo County district attorney—a position he has held for five years—and that county provided him with a healthy advantage. As results came in, Torrez took 57.7 percent of the early and absentee voters in Bernalillo County. 

As the district attorney, Torrez announced last year a memorandum of understanding with the state Indian Affairs Division to form a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force subunit within the district attorney’s office. Torrez also served as assistant attorney general in 2008 and 2009 where he handled cases of police misconduct and exploitation of children.

Biden signs RECA extension

President Joe Biden signed an extension of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act today, which lengthens the time that people who got sick after being exposed to radiation from uranium mining and processing or nuclear testing in Nevada have to apply for financial compensation. This extension keeps the possibility of expanding eligibility open. Currently, people in the Tularosa area who became sick after the Trinity test are not eligible for compensation. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, both New Mexico Democrats, are among the lawmakers pushing to expand eligibility to those residents. The extension received bipartisan support in Congress.