Lawsuit asks Wildlife Services to update its research on ‘outdated’ wildlife management program

The conservation-focused WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency, challenging the science behind what the group calls an “outdated wildlife-killing program.” The group filed the lawsuit in a federal district court. 

Wildlife Services is a secretive agency within the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that enters into contracts with counties and local governments to remove, euthanize and disperse wildlife that are considered threats to agriculture, livestock and ranching operations. 

Wildlife Services killed over 1.2 million native animals across the U.S. in 2019, including thousands of animals here in New Mexico. The agency is most well-known for its predator control programs, in which federal agents use lethal and nonlethal techniques to remove coyotes, foxes, wolves— including endangered Mexican gray wolves—mountain lions, bears and other predators from areas where those animals threaten livestock. 

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

But the wildlife program extends beyond just predator control. Nationwide, Wildlife Services targets a wide range of wildlife species for removal, including an array of birds such as sandhill cranes, ravens, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons and owls; and mammals such as beavers, rabbits, hares and prairie dogs. 

The impacts of those removals on the natural ecosystems are more or less unknown, according to Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, because the agency has never completed an environmental impact statement for its program in this state. “Wildlife are the engineers, along with plant species and then microbes and fungi and stuff, that actually make ecosystems function,” said Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Removing wildlife—and that integral role that they play in ecosystem function—breaks down the way those ecosystems do things like self-manage, clean water, clean air, resupply soils with nutrients, things like that.”

“Especially in an era when droughts and other impacts of the climate crisis are being felt across the west—but especially in dry ecosystems like those in New Mexico—removing those very engineers that make those ecosystems function is problematic,” Smith said.

Oil Conservation Commission agrees to hear proposal for produced water spills

The Oil Conservation Commission agreed Thursday to set a hearing date for a proposed rule that would make spilling produced water illegal. The decision was in response to a petition filed by WildEarth Guardians in September calling on the OCC to adopt rules to make spilling produced water illegal. 

Under the current regulatory framework, oil and gas operators face little to no consequences for spilling the toxic fracking fluid in the state, as long as they report the spill to the Oil Conservation Division. Produced water spills are very common in New Mexico, particularly in the southeastern region of the state in the Permian Basin. In the vast majority of cases, no penalties are assessed against the operator. “Oil and Gas wastewater, aka produced water, is toxic.

State Environmental Improvement Board hears air quality permits appeal

The state Environmental Improvement Board heard arguments during a hearing on Thursday about air quality permits issued by the New Mexico Environment Department that an environmental group alleges are illegal. 

WildEarth Guardians appealed four permits issued by NMED for oil and gas facilities in Eddy and Lea counties, where ozone levels now exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). 

Ozone is the only pollutant under the NAAQS that is not directly emitted from any source. Instead, ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxides (NOx) are exposed to sunlight and warmer temperatures. Summer months are usually when ozone levels reach their highest point. In addition to Lea and Eddy counties, ozone levels in five other counties in the state are at 95 percent of the NAAQ standard. Source: New Mexico Environment Department

NMED recently released draft rules targeting reductions in VOCs and NOx emissions at oil and gas facilities.

Wastewater, wastewater everywhere: In the Permian Basin, a new kind of boom

CARLSBAD — In the Permian Basin, now the most prolific oil field in the world, hundreds of miles of plastic pipelines snake along dirt roads, drilling pads and the edges of farm fields. But they are not carrying oil. Instead, they’re transporting an equally precious commodity in this arid region straddling the New Mexico-Texas border: water. 

“Pipelines are going in everywhere,” said Jim Davis as he drove a camouflage-hued, four-wheeled ATV across his land toward the water station he owns. Selling the water beneath his property to oil and gas companies has given Davis and his wife, who has cancer, a financial security that eluded them for most of their lives. Every day, a steady stream of water trucks flows in and out of his station south of Carlsbad, filling up on his high-quality freshwater — an essential ingredient for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. 

Davis, whose property has been in his family since 1953, says he’s never seen so much water moving around the basin.

Conservation groups sue Trump admin over changes to Endangered Species Act

Conservation organization WildEarth Guardians and six other environmental and animal protection groups filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over changes it made to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The nonprofit law firm Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians and the Humane Society of the United States. “Nothing in these new rules helps wildlife, period,” said EarthJustice attorney Kristen Boyles, in a statement. “Instead, these regulatory changes seek to make protection and recovery of threatened and endangered species harder and less predictable.”

The lawsuit alleges the administration “failed to publicly disclose and analyze the harms and impacts of these rules,” in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It argues the administration inserted changes into the final rules that “were never made public and not subject to public comment, cutting the American people out of the decision-making process.”

The groups also argue the administration violated the ESA by “unreasonably changing requirements” for compliance with Section 7, a provision of the ESA that requires federal agencies to ensure that actions they authorize do not jeopardize the existence of any species listed, or destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat of any listed species.

Chaco Canyon BLM

Navajo government officials, environmental groups want review of BLM’s Chaco Canyon leases

Environmental groups and Navajo government officials are criticizing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the bureau’s handling of oil and gas leases approved in the Greater Chaco area. Navajo leaders and 16 tribal and environmental organizations addressed their concerns in a letter sent to BLM’s New Mexico state director Tim Spisak last week calling for more public hearings on the issue. “We urge you to reject the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Findings of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessments,” the letter reads. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved environmental assessments for five sets of oil and gas wells that did not address the cumulative water impacts of nearly 4,000 horizontal Mancos Shale wells in the Greater Chaco region. The ruling covered environmental assessments approved by BLM for 25 applications to drill in the area.

As warming strains NM’s water supplies, ‘status quo’ no longer works

On the downstream side of Elephant Butte Dam, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation employees navigate a stairwell above the Rio Grande, passing scat from the ring-tailed cats that like to hang out here, and enter through a door into the 300-foot tall concrete dam. Built in the early twentieth century, Elephant Butte Dam holds back water stored for farmers in southern New Mexico, the state of Texas and Mexico. At full capacity, the reservoir is about 40 miles long and can retain more than 2,000,000 acre feet of water. Jesse Higgins, an electrician who manages the powerplant at the dam, goes first and flips on the lights, which flicker and fire up after a few minutes. Labyrinthine tunnels burrow throughout, and water drains along the sides of the narrow, elevated path.

Transparency concerns about oilfield water reuse plans met with silence

As state agencies move forward with plans to study reusing wastewater from oil and gas drilling, some environmental and community groups want the administration to slow down. They’re concerned about the working group’s quick schedule and lack of transparency thus far on an issue they say demands careful study. This summer, New Mexico signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and formed a working group to figure out how wastewater might be reused within the oilfield itself—and someday, beyond it. As we reported last month, the state initiated the process with the EPA. Following the publication of that story, representatives from more than 15 environmental and community groups signed onto a letter to the EPA which said the agreement between the federal agency and the state violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and requesting the federal agency withdraw.

Grim forecast for the Rio Grande has water managers, conservationists concerned

This weekend’s warm and windy conditions were good for hiking or kite-flying. But they were tough on a river everyone is already expecting to be low on runoff this spring and summer. According to the National Water and Climate Center’s forecast for the Rio Grande Basin, the water supply outlook for spring and summer remains “dire.” In his monthly email, forecast hydrologist Angus Goodbody noted that while storms did hit the mountains in February, particularly along the headwaters in Colorado, snowpack in some parts of the Sangre de Cristo’s continued to decline. That means the river and its tributaries will receive less runoff than normal this spring and summer—and many areas may reach or break historic low flows. Last week, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news.

BLM: NM will get $70 million from oil and gas leases

After reviewing hundreds of pages of protests, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said the agency is almost set to release a payment of nearly $70 million dollars for oil and gas leases to the state of New Mexico. The spokeswoman, Donna Hummel, told NM Political Report Thursday afternoon that an oil and gas internal review process is complete and New Mexico could see the money in a few months. “We feel confident that the state will have its lease payment of about $70 million by June 1,” Hummel said. Hummel added the dollar amount New Mexico receives could change, though it’s unlikely. U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, the lone Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, and the Democratic members of the delegation sent letters to the BLM urging the agency to release funds owed to the state.