President Joe Biden vetoed resolutions on Tuesday that would have stripped protections from the endangered lesser prairie chicken in New Mexico as well as a bat found in the eastern United States. Congress, led by Republican lawmakers, passed the resolutions in an attempt to remove the endangered and threatened species protections from the lesser prairie chicken as well as the northern long-eared bat.
The lesser prairie chicken received protections under the Endangered Species Act earlier this year. “The final rule, issued by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), provides Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections to an American bird species whose historical habitat on the Great Plains has diminished by approximately 90 percent and whose populations have plummeted toward disappearance,” Biden wrote in his veto message regarding the lesser prairie chicken. The Fish and Wildlife Service has divided the lesser prairie chicken into two distinct population segments. The southern population, which is found in New Mexico, is classified as endangered, while the northern population is classified as threatened.
U.S. House Republicans voted to strip protections from the lesser prairie chicken and the northern long-eared bats on Wednesday. The House of Representatives voted 217-206 in favor of three items, including two joint resolutions stripping protections from the endangered and threatened species. Two Republicans crossed party lines and voted with the Democrats against the measures.
The House voted on three items—removal of protections for the lesser prairie chicken and northern long-eared bat and funding for military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs—at the same time. All three of New Mexico’s representatives voted against them. Of the two species, the lesser prairie chicken is found in New Mexico but the northern long-eared bat has a larger range, and is present in 37 states including some of New Mexico’s neighboring states.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached an agreement that sets in motion a timetable for issuing decisions on protections for dozens of species, including one that resides in New Mexico. This agreement comes following a lawsuit the Center for Biological Diversity brought against the federal agency regarding 31 species from the southeast and two species from the southwest, including the Pecos pupfish. In the lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service was violating requirements to issue listing decisions within two years of receiving a legal petition to list a plant or animal as threatened or endangered. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, species are waiting an average of nine to 12 years before such a decision is made. The Pecos pupfish is an example of a species that has been waiting years for a final decision.
Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, describes the Peñasco least chipmunk as “one of the most enchanting critters in our Land of Enchantment,” but warns that this tiny squirrel may disappear from the landscape forever if it does not receive protections soon. In September of 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice in the Federal Register proposing listing the chipmunk subspecies as endangered.
But, the Center for Biological Diversity alleges, the agency failed to finalize protections within a year as required by the Endangered Species Act. The advocacy group filed a lawsuit last week alleging the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by missing deadlines for finalizing protections for 13 species including the Peñasco least chipmunk. The Center for Biological Diversity alleges President Joe Biden’s administration has consistently missed deadlines to list species under the Endangered Species Act and fewer species are receiving protections than under previous Democratic presidents. Since Biden took office, about 11 species annually have received protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Under President Barack Obama, an average of 36 species a year received federal protections and, under President Bill Clinton, that number was even higher—65 species annually received protections.
In a meadow near Silver Lake in the Sacramento Mountains, one can look out onto a small patch of habitat containing several species of plant and animal life
Although spring is too early to see many of the species of plant life, such as a few species of thistles which do not bloom until late summer, other plant and animal species are already present, including the New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse, Sacramento Mountain Butterfly, the Mexican Spotted Owl along with invasive species like the Musk Thistle. “It’s an island,” District Biologist for the Sacramento Ranger District Philip Hughes said, referring to the species of plants and animals that are endemic to the Sacramento Mountains. Endemic means these species live in a specific geographical area and do not grow naturally elsewhere. Recently, the Wright’s marsh thistle was listed as threatened. This thistle is native to marshlands in New Mexico, such as those seen in the meadow near Silver Lake and in a preserve in Santa Rosa, Bitter Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Roswell and in the Rio Grande Valley.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Wright’s marsh thistle, a type of sunflower found primarily in New Mexico, as a threatened species. As part of the listing, which was announced this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 159 acres of land in seven areas as critical habitat. The Wright’s marsh thistle is already listed as endangered at the state level.
Some of the factors threatening the flower include livestock grazing, drought, oil and gas extraction, diversion of water and invasive plant species. The plant is found in eastern New Mexico. In the Pecos River Valley, it has vivid pink flowers and dark green foliage.
A rosy hue colored the clouds on the dark horizon when Michael Smith heard the first lesser prairie chicken of the morning making a bubbling, chuckle-like noise out on a planted field at a ranch in the small village of Causey, southeast of Portales. It was still too dark to see the birds. But, as the sun rose, the people touring the lek on March 30 began spotting the species of grouse. A lek is an area where the lesser prairie chicken goes to dance as part of its courtship ritual. The tour consisted of representatives from Smith’s group, Common Ground Capital, as well as conservation organization CEHMM, the State Land Office, The Nature Conservancy and RiverBank Conservation.
Mack Kizer remembers seeing lesser prairie chickens on his family ranch in eastern New Mexico growing up. He said his children and grandchildren also have seen the birds on the ranch since childhood and he hopes they can continue to enjoy the unique animal’s presence long into the future. As the bird’s population dwindles, Kizer’s family is one of a group of landowners who have entered into agreements that allow them to be paid to preserve lesser prairie chicken habitat on their ranch. The bird’s habitat has become more and more fragmented. The birds living in eastern New Mexico and its neighboring section of Texas are now isolated from birds farther north in places like Oklahoma and Kansas.
This month, the lesser prairie chicken’s southern population will join the list of animals in the United States that are considered endangered.
A coalition of conservation groups petitioned the federal government to list the coyote in parts of New Mexico and Arizona as endangered under the similar appearance clause of the Endangered Species Act. The groups say the Mexican gray wolf and the coyote look very similar—to the point that wildlife managers cannot always tell them apart. Michelle Lute, the carnivore conservation director at Project Coyote, has a Ph.D. in wild canid conservation. In an interview with NM Political Report, she said generally when trying to educate people about the differences between wolves and coyotes, people say to look for a bushy tail as well as differences in size and ear to head ratio. But those aren’t as obvious when it comes to the Mexican wolf and the coyote.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its plan on Wednesday for recovering the Gila trout, which is found in high mountain streams in parts of New Mexico and Arizona. The plan prioritizes efforts like reintroducing the fish into historical habitats, removing or managing nonnative trout species and captive breeding of the Gila trout at hatcheries. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Gila trout is one of the rarest trout species in the country. It first was listed as endangered in 1973 when the Endangered Species Act passed, but has been recognized as endangered since 1967. It was later downlisted to threatened in 2006.