Pared-down wildlife corridors bill moves forward

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Lawmakers on a House committee unanimously approved a plan to leverage state funds to draw matching federal money to work on wildlife corridor projects around the state. Senate Bill 72, which has $5 million committed to it in the state budget proposal, could bring in $20 million in federal funds to allow the state Department of Transportation to keep working on road projects to protect both animals and people. “From both the wildlife connectivity and human safety standpoint this is incredibly important,” Michael Dax, the western program director for Wildlands Network, said in an interview after the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee voted 6-0 Tuesday to approve the measure. Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who introduced the bill, originally hoped for an appropriation of $50 million, but acknowledged after the vote that “fifty million was a pipe dream.” She added she hopes to up the $5 million state commitment to $10 million by the end of the legislative session on March 18. 

She said the state can leverage the funds in an 80/20 federal grant initiative called the Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, which is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and includes $350 million to create wildlife corridors over a period of five years.

Bill to fund wildlife corridors passes Senate

The Senate passed a bill on a 37-2 vote that would create a fund to receive federal dollars to assist in creating wildlife corridors. SB 72, sponsored by Senate Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, builds off of past legislation that resulted in a wildlife corridor study. It further appropriates $5 million to the fund to help match federal money. The fund will help the state build passages like overpasses and underpasses as well as changing culverts to allow animals to safely cross the roadway, thus protecting both people and wildlife from collisions. Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said the bill has the added benefit of expanding wildlife habitat by removing barriers.

Tribes are leaders in wildlife management

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland opened her speech at the recent Upper Rio Grande Wildlife Corridors Summit with a story about passenger pigeons. Once considered the most abundant bird in North America, passenger pigeon migrations were a sight to see. Potawatomi tribal leader Simon Pokagon famously described “an unbroken front [of] millions of pigeons” during a migration in 1850. “Never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven,” he wrote. “And now they’re extinct,” Haaland told audience members at the summit, held last month.