Environmental group sues feds over water management practices and endangered fish

New Mexico is at a critical juncture for biological diversity of native fish species, according to Daniel Timmons, the wild rivers program director for the advocacy group WildEarth Guardians. 

Timmons said it is not unrealistic to think that the Rio Grande silvery minnow could go extinct in the next few years. WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday alleging that the way water is managed in the Rio Grande needs to be reevaluated to prevent the silvery minnow from going extinct. In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in consultation with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, issued a biological opinion. While the biological opinion acknowledged the impact water operations in the Middle Rio Grande have on the fish population, it concluded that the Bureau’s water management activities won’t jeopardize endangered species like the silvery minnow or adversely modify their critical habitat. WildEarth Guardians disagrees with this assessment, which the suit alleges “rests entirely on implementation of a series of vague, uncertain, and unenforceable conservation measures” and fails to consider climate change impacts.

NM Supreme Court upholds constitutional amendment changing PRC to an appointed body

Despite arguments that voters did not understand that they would lose the ability to elect state utility regulators, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the constitutional amendment that changes the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission from an elected body to an appointed body. The court heard oral arguments on Monday and, after a brief recess, the judges returned to the room and announced their decision. A written opinion will be issued that explains the reasoning. The change goes into effect in January and a nominating committee is currently considering about fifteen candidates. The nominating committee meets Friday and is expected to choose which names to submit to the governor for consideration. 

The Indigenous groups argue that the appointment rather than election of PRC commissioners will disenfranchise them by potentially eliminating representation.

Researcher says ancient agricultural fields are threatened by oil and gas near Chaco

When the ancestral Puebloans lived in the Chaco Canyon area, they chose to locate their great houses in areas with high agricultural productivity, according to a new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. 

Lead author Wetherbee Dorshow said these ancient agricultural fields can be hard to identify. And encroaching oil and gas development in the region could threaten the fields. “There are a lot of areas there that have never been surveyed and we don’t know a ton about,” he said. “There’s also a lot of oil and gas in areas that are highly sensitive.”

He said the fields aren’t lined with stone fences like the masonry walls that have been used in Zuni Pueblo. Dorshow’s team used GIS—or geospatial imaging—to identify areas that the ancestral Puebloans may have farmed during the time period archaeologists refer to as the Great House period, which stretches from 850 A.D. to 1200 A.D.

Dorshow said there are a variety of different ideas about the role that Chaco Canyon played in the ancestral Puebloan society.

A parrot now lost in the United States may have been part of the pre-Columbian bird trade

About four years ago, John Moretti, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, was digging through animal bones found at the Bonnell archaeological site in southeastern New Mexico when he found one that stood out. He later identified this bone as belonging to a parrot that was once native to New Mexico, indicating that the people who lived there may have captured or traded the unique, high-elevation parrot species. He said these bones were essentially in Ziploc bags and had never been identified or cataloged. They’d been removed from the site in the 1950s. “It was really a mundane task,” he said.

Lesser prairie chicken in New Mexico receives endangered species protections

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is listing the population of lesser prairie chicken within New Mexico as endangered. The lesser prairie chicken—which despite its name is not a chicken, but a grouse—is divided into two distinct population groups. The southern group includes birds living in parts of Texas and New Mexico in the Permian Basin area. “Lesser prairie chickens, known for their loud and showy mating rituals, are one of America’s most unique grassland birds,” Amy Leuders, the southwest regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said during a press conference on Thursday. “For generations, people have marveled at the strutting, dancing and booming sounds displayed each spring on their leks.”

She said the birds are synonymous with healthy prairies because they need “large unfragmented parcels of intact native grasslands to support self-sustaining populations.”

In total, there are about 32,000 birds in both population groups, though there were once hundreds of thousands of lesser prairie chickens in the United States.

Federal legislation aims to permanently withdraw lands around Chaco from mineral leasing

Democratic members of the New Mexico congressional delegation once again introduced legislation today that would permanently remove areas surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park from the federal mineral leasing program. This would prevent new oil and gas leases as well as coal and uranium mining on federal lands in the 10-mile buffer zone around the park. The proposal comes as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington Field Office is accepting comments on a 20-year moratorium on leasing in that area. Unlike Luján’s proposal, the withdrawal of federal lands around Chaco from the mineral leasing program is a temporary measure. In a press release, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said that protecting Chaco Canyon has been one of his top priorities.

Displaced coal miners, power plant workers ask for help with health insurance

Unions representing San Juan Generating Station and San Juan Mine employees asked the state for about $6 million in energy transition funds to reimburse displaced workers for the out-of-pocket health insurance costs they have faced since being laid off. The funds would come from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. This is especially important for the mine workers who lost health insurance at the end of the month that they were laid off. Power plant workers, on the other hand, have six months of health insurance following layoffs. Layoffs at the mine began last year as the facilities prepared to close.

Environmental assessment shows Chaco mineral leasing mineral moratorium would impact few Navajo allottees

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s environmental assessment of withdrawing federal lands around Chaco Culture National Historical Park from mineral leasing shows that less than a dozen Navajo allottees will be highly impacted by the decision. This is based on past analysis of where potential development could occur. The withdrawal is intended to protect sites that are sacred to the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and the Navajo, or Diné, people. The process began about a year ago when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, issued a secretarial order calling for a 20-year moratorium on new oil and gas leasing near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. While less than a dozen allottees would be highly impacted, another 39 allottees could see moderate impacts from the withdrawal.

Governor touts federal, state efforts to combat climate change at COP 27

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham praised the passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act during a speech she gave at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP 27, on Monday. She said the investments that the Inflation Reduction Act makes, such as incentives for clean energy development, are a game changer. “The issues for other states or regional coalitions have been there’s not enough money to invest, we don’t have the right incentives for the private sector and so it’s really easy to stay on that merry-go-round and never get off,” she said. The Inflation Reduction Act is just one piece of federal legislation that has increased investments in climate. She said last year’s infrastructure package provided New Mexico alone with $700 million largely for climate-related work.

New environmental crimes task force will help leverage resources

The head of the New Mexico Environment Department says a new environmental crimes task force will help the state better leverage resources to go after people who are polluting the environment and placing communities at risk. With agencies like NMED being underfunded, leveraging resources is important, Secretary James Kenney said. Kenney said he was familiar with environmental crimes task forces from his time in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He said the EPA partners with several other states on such task forces. After more than a year of working with federal, tribal  and state partners, NMED announced the creation of New Mexico’s first environmental crimes task force on Nov.