With mother’s death, the endangered Prieto wolf pack is gone

Peering at a map of red dots, Michael Robinson became worried when he couldn’t locate AF1251, the last adult Mexican gray wolf of the Prieto pack, who was also a mother with a yearling. 

Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, was keeping an eye on the remaining two members of the Prieto pack after the alpha male of the pack and a pup had been killed by the federal Wildlife Services agents earlier this year. Wildlife Services is a secretive federal agency that offers predator removal services for ranchers. 

The two wolf killings followed the removal of a total of seven pack members over the last two years. “I’d been very interested in what would happen to the Prieto pack after [that],” Robinson said. 

The mapping tool, provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tracks endangered Mexican gray wolves using radio collar data. The map is usually updated every two weeks, but amid the pandemic, the map hadn’t been updated in over a month. When it was finally updated this week, Robinson said he checked the numbers of each red dot on the map, hoping to locate the female.

New Mexico joins multistate coalition asking for preliminary injunction on Clean Water rule

New Mexico joined Tuesday a coalition of 16 states, the City of New York and the District of Columbia that are asking a federal court to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new clean water rule from going into effect while it awaits a decision in an earlier lawsuit against the rule. 

Attorney General Hector Balderas joined the coalition in filing a lawsuit May 1 against the Trump Administration in the federal Northern California District Court over the EPA’s recently finalized changes to the “Waters of the U.S.” definitions in the Clean Water Act regulations. 

The definition greatly narrows the types of waterways, streams and wetlands that are afforded federal protection under the act. The New Mexico Environment Department estimates the new rule would remove protections for 89 percent of the state’s streams and half of its wetlands. RELATED: Ranchers, conservation groups unhappy with the new clean water rule, but for different reasons

The rule is slated to take effect in June, spurring the multistate coalition to ask for a preliminary injunction that asks that the rule be enjoined until the court makes a decision on the coalition’s lawsuit “in order to prevent widespread harm to national water quality and to avoid disruption to state and local water pollution control programs,” according to a statement issued by the AG’s office. 

In a separate statement, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said NMED will do “whatever it takes to prevail in protecting our most precious resource.”

“We will not allow a rule to take effect this summer that will devastate New Mexico’s scarce and limited water resources,” Kenney said. NMED submitted comments on the rule in April, arguing that the new rule is “not based on hydrologic science” and “does not account for the impacts of climate change on the hydrologic cycle,” and said the new rule is not protective of public health or the environment.

Udall, Heinrich introduce long-awaited legislation to protect portions of the Gila River

U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation Tuesday that would designate portions of the Gila River as Wild and Scenic, after a “years-long” effort to protect what’s known as one of the country’s last wild rivers. 

The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act would designate 446 miles of the Gila River and other waters in the Gila and San Francisco water basin as either wild or scenic, protecting those portions of river from future development. 

RELATED: A win for the state’s last wild river

Udall said they drafted the legislation with input from community members, private landowners, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, local fishers, farmers and ranchers. Udall said he and Heinrich  also worked with landowners and state agencies to identify where the designation boundaries should be. “We opened up that draft for additional feedback, to make sure New Mexicans have a seat at the table in helping determine the future of the Gila,” Udall said. “We have now introduced a strong piece of legislation that will protect the Gila, while ensuring that existing uses and planned projects, including grazing, recreation, restoration, and access can continue.”

Heinrich said the legislation is timely in a period of economic uncertainty caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The outdoor recreation industry was fueling some of our fastest job growth, particularly in our rural communities, just before the pandemic hit,” Heinrich said. “Roosevelt said conservation means development as much as it means protection, and he’s absolutely right.

Audit finds ‘inappropriate’ handling of funds for lesser prairie chicken conservation

A conservation program that industry groups and landowners hoped would keep the lesser prairie chicken off the federal Endangered Species Act list has fallen short of its conservation mission and wasted millions in the process, according to an independent audit of the program.

The lesser prairie chicken has been under consideration for Endangered Species Act protections for more than 20 years and was listed as a threatened species, a step down from endangered species designation, from 2014 to 2016. 

A group of five states that share the lesser prairie chicken range — New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma — developed in 2013 a voluntary conservation program with land owners, ranchers and oil and gas companies through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), a consortium of state fish and game agencies across the West. WAFWA has managed the program for landowners and oil and gas developers to buy into in order to assure protections for remaining lesser prairie chicken habitat. 

BLM will move forward on Greater Chaco drilling proposal while communities grapple with COVID-19 surge

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to move forward with a public engagement process for plans to expand drilling in the Greater Chaco region, even as the communities in northwestern New Mexico, who are currently struggling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, have repeatedly requested an extension to the process.  

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the BLM released a draft amendment to the Farmington field office resource management plan (RMP) and environmental impact statement in late February, kicking off a public comment period that ends on May 28. The 400-plus page draft amendment outlines a preferred alternative that would increase oil and gas activity in the Greater Chaco region.  

As the COVID-19 outbreak has spread across the state, local community groups in the Greater Chaco region requested the BLM extend the public comment period during the public health emergency. That call was echoed by the state government, the congressional delegation, and tribal leaders. All told, three separate letters were sent to the Department of Interior requesting the comment be extended. As of Friday, none have received a response, according to officials. 

RELATED: Guv orders Gallup lockdown to slow COVID-19 spread

Meanwhile, populations in the northwest corner of the state, including communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands, have been pummeled by COVID-19.

Report: Climate change, oil & gas emissions a bad mix for New Mexico air quality

Climate change and a sharp increase in oil and gas production in the state are contributing to worsening air quality in New Mexico, according to a new report. 

The American Lung Association’s (ALA) annual “State of the Air 2020” report, which looks at ozone and particle pollution levels across a three-year period between 2016 and 2018, found air quality across the country has worsened since last year’s report, and New Mexico is no exception. 

Climate change has been a chief driver of worsening air quality, said JoAnna Strother, senior advocacy director for ALA, because it increases the amount of particulate matter in the air. 

“Climate change is really leading to stuff that we saw in this year’s report. The past five years are the warmest years on record, globally,” Strother said. “As temperatures warm up, we see more droughts, more dust storms, more wildfires — all of those contribute to the unhealthy air quality that we see picked up on air quality monitors.”

Wildfires are another major contributor to particle pollution, she said, particularly in the western United States. 

“Those wildfires might be happening in California and we would certainly see effects in other states like New Mexico,” she said. 

Strother also pointed to drought, a common and growing environmental challenge in New Mexico. 

“When there’s no rain to saturate, the dust becomes very fine particles, and when that’s picked up into the air, it [becomes] particle pollution. We’re specifically looking at PM2.5, so it’s extremely fine particles that lodge very deep down into the lungs, and is responsible for a lot of the health impacts,” she said. 

Particulate matter monitors in NM

Much of the particulate matter data for New Mexico is missing from the ALA report, which uses data compiled from state air quality monitors. 

Source: American Lung Association

That’s because the state’s ambient air quality monitors aren’t placed in each county, according to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). New Mexico maintains 20 ambient air quality monitors throughout the state, and the locations of those monitors are based on population density, NMED spokesperson Maddy Hayden told NM Political Report. 

Hayden said NMED’s air quality monitors and their locations must be federally-approved, and the state would not receive approval to place more air quality monitors in areas that do not meet population requirements. 

RELATED: For Greater Chaco communities, air pollution compounds COVID-19 threat

“What pollutants are monitored in the network and where those monitors are located is determined and governed by federal requirements for siting and the federal Environmental Protection Agency,” she said. 

Particulate matter in Eddy and Lea counties, for example, is monitored by just one PM2.5 “sampler” located in Hobbs.

Heinrich defends stream access as issue heads to NM Supreme Court

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich weighed in on an ongoing and complicated dispute between the state Game Commission and environmental groups about accessing streams in New Mexico. Heinrich told NM Political Report that New Mexico’s leadership needs to step up efforts to protect stream access rights. 

At issue is a rule adopted by the Game Commission in 2017 that enables landowners to apply through the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to certify portions of waterways that run through private property as “non-navigable.” By obtaining the non-navigable designation, those landowners are able to block off portions of waterways from public access. The rule was generally supported by landowners, and NMDGF approved several applications before it imposed a moratorium in July 2019 on issuing the certificates over legal questions. 

Critics of the rule argue that restricting public access to waterways — including those that flow through private property — is unconstitutional. The New Mexico Constitution states that waterways belong to the public, and critics argue trespassing was never allowed under state law to access a public waterway. Water recreationalists have also argued that the rule has impeded recreation on some of the state’s most popular waterways, including the Chama, Pecos, Alamosa, Mimbres and Peñasco rivers. 

Controversy around the issue swelled in early 2020, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declined to reappoint commission chair Joanna Prukop, whom she had appointed to the position in June 2019, after Prukop led a majority vote at the commission to ask the NMDGF to review and possibly amend the rule.

Oil and gas, environmentalists in rare agreement over State Land Office’s emergency rule on shut down wells

Representatives from both oil and gas producers and environmental groups found themselves agreeing on the State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard’s emergency rulemaking for oil and gas production on state land during an online tele-hearing. 

The State Land Office announced earlier in April that it would begin an emergency rulemaking process to allow oil lessees to temporarily stop oil production without penalty for at least thirty days, in hopes of restarting production when the price of oil has recovered some. During the online tele-hearing, oil and gas representatives praised Garcia Richard and the State Land Office for its decision. 

John Smitherman, senior regulatory advisor at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), described the rule as “valuable and practical relief.” Smitherman said the current oil price crisis, spurred by a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and exacerbated by a steep drop in demand for oil and gas products amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to the “worst business environment” he’s ever seen. 

“I’ve personally been in this business for over forty years, and have never seen the challenges we face today. This industry, just like many others, is making sacrifices right now for the good of the community, while incurring significant financial losses as a result of unprecedented reductions in demand for our products,” Smitherman said. “The interests of the oil and gas industry and the State Land Office are aligned when it comes to this.”

RELATED: Groups worry about oil and gas emissions as state regulators scale back some enforcement operations during outbreak

Environmental group representatives agreed that the emergency rule was a good idea. 

“It’s not often that environmental groups get to say that we agree with industry in commending the Land Commissioner in moving forward with this rule,” said Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner at WildEarth Guardians. 

But that’s where consensus between the two groups stopped. 

Smitherman, who said NMOGA’s members operate approximately 95 percent of oil and gas production in the state, and account for greater than 90 percent of all state land office revenue, said he anticipates the situation “will right itself” and “business will return to normal,” though the recovery could be slow. 

Sobel disagreed in her comments. 

“It’s shameful that industry officials are here advocating for yet another bailout to frack forever, in the midst of a public health crisis. We know the oil and gas industry is collapsing as we speak.

For Greater Chaco communities, air pollution compounds COVID-19 threat

Communities in the Greater Chaco region of northwestern New Mexico have been subjected to worsening air quality caused by oil and gas development in the region. That exposure has possibly increased the risk COVID-19 poses to Navajo families living amidst oil and gas development, according to a Harvard study. 

COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has spread quickly through the Navajo Nation since the first cases were reported in mid-March. As of April 14, the Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, reported 838 cases. Of those, 284 cases are in New Mexico. “We are concerned, we’re really concerned,” said Teresa Seamster, Counselor Chapter Health Committee member.

Groups worry about oil and gas emissions as state regulators scale back some enforcement operations during outbreak

New Mexico’s environment and energy regulators have scaled back some of their regulatory enforcement operations to comply with the state’s public health order limiting social contact and workplace operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s public health order deemed oil and gas operations essential, and extraction activities have continued in both the Permian Basin and in the Four Corners region. That’s worried some residents and environmental advocates, who are concerned that the state may not be able to fully enforce environmental laws. New Mexico Environment Department spokesperson Maddy Hayden said NMED is focused on “critical activities related to protecting New Mexico’s food and drinking water supplies, proper management and disposal of infectious waste and minimizing occupational risk to COVID-19.”

“Our compliance staff will continue to conduct investigations which pose an imminent or substantial endangerment threat to public health or the environment,” Hayden said in an email. “Routine inspections of permitted and licensed facilities will otherwise remain a low priority during this time.”

Oil and gas operations are of particular concern for communities in New Mexico’s energy-producing regions.