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North American river otter, northern leopard frog, Mexican spotted owl, Mexican tetra, American mink.

Cash for the Underdogs

New Mexico Game Commission adopts plan that leaves unclear requirements for federal grants

November 30, 2016, 12:00 am

The federal government has put grant money on the table for the state’s taking, this time specifically to preserve habitats and study species often overshadowed—and therefore underfunded—by their huntable and fishable brethren. But the New Mexico Game Commission seems reluctant to accept the offered funds, up to $1 million a year. Instead, they took every opportunity to soften the language in the newly approved State Wildlife Action Plan. The edits loosened the plan’s bonds and put nebulous mandates on grant applications, without clear direction on how to fulfill them.

Since New Mexico first approved a State Wildlife Action Plan in 2005, the state has received $13.8 million in 55 grants for surveys and research as well as restoration and management projects. Fish took the highest number of grants, though mammals, riparian habitat restoration and the purchase of lands and easements for conservation also secured funds.

“What the State Wildlife Action Plan hopefully represents is a hearty acknowledgement of the important roles that non-game species, that we spend a lot less time thinking about and we see less often, play in the larger ecosystem,” says Michael Dax of Defenders of Wildlife, a repeat commenter on the issue.

The plan expires after a decade. When an updated draft went before the commission in late 2015, Matt Wunder, division chief of the Department of Game and Fish’s Ecological and Environmental Planning Division, reminded commissioners, “The [grant program] provides the department with a substantial stream of money and in large measure the only source of funding that we have to work on … nongame species.”

But faced with representatives from oil and gas and ranching who opposed the plan as overreaching, fretted about it listing 460 “species of greatest conservation need” and claimed it was more fiction than science, commissioners voted to ask the federal government for an extension so they could spend more time with stakeholders.

“My concerns with the [State Wildlife Action Plan] is that there are very few facts in it,” said Karin Foster, attorney and executive director for the Independent Petroleum Association, at that November 2015 meeting. “It’s extremely anti-business, it’s extremely anti-oil and gas and it’s clearly the opinion of the drafters in many, many instances.”

The revised plan approved by commissioners on Nov. 17 listed just 235 species. Among them were the charismatic—jaguars, black-footed ferrets, North American river otters, as well as more than 70 bird species—and the lesser-known: a bevy of shrimp, chubs, suckers, snails, lizards, snakes, and no fewer than 46 species of mollusks.

Commissioners took a few more public comments, closed that session, and then the commission’s chairman, Paul Kienzle, tacked on several amendments to soften language. The plan went from making declarative statements to covering “potential” threats, and made explicit that the plan “doesn’t have the force of law, rule or regulations.” Language calling for New Mexico to “strengthen or develop state laws, regulations and policies” to protect wetlands and aquatic ecosystems became “consider appropriate policies.” To every section where threats and conservation actions were listed, Kienzle added language that states, “Conservation action is not warranted merely because a potential threat is identified. Conservation action is not appropriate without site-specific data.”

“We are still not totally clear how those amendments will serve practically,” says Dax, with Defenders. “We do want a plan passed, we’re happy that a plan passed, but we do want to make sure it’s a plan that will actually be useful for researchers to get grants and do projects. … We’re hopeful that the plan as passed will serve that function, but because of the last-minute nature of those amendments, that did give us cause for concern.”

Susan MacMullin, chief of the branch of the US Fish and Wildlife Service that works on non-game wildlife and sport fish restoration for the Southwest, tells SFR the plans are “supposed to be the blueprint for conservation of a state’s species into the future. You do need a plan to figure out if you’re making progress.”

Adding the caveat that she’s not the decision-maker here, just a gatekeeper who will then pass the plan on to regional and federal offices to approve, she said, based on her first read, adding the amendments “doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a planning document that kind of informs management of a species of greatest conservation need.”

Game commissioners had repeatedly expressed concern that federal money would come with strings attached.

“I really just don’t trust the federal government at this point,” Commissioner Elizabeth Ryan said at the meeting.

There’s no evidence that, in the 10 years this program has been in place, any such requirements have been made. In his presentation that year, Wunder reiterated that the program keeps the state “in the driver’s seat.” Keeping New Mexico’s wildlife off the endangered list can help to prevent the need for federal intervention, avoiding what happened with endangered species like Mexican wolves and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.

Since 2005, these grants have funded, just to name a few, river habitat restoration projects for the Chihuahua chub, a study on the effect the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire had on warm water fish in the Gila River basin, and population management for black bears—purchasing lockable city trash dumpsters to deter bears from scavenging for edible garbage.

As Kienzle pointed out during the 2015 meeting, “None of us go to jail if we don’t approve this. We may not get any money from this grant program but this isn’t a federal requirement in the sense that you have to do it. … So be it. If we don’t get the money, we don’t get the money.”

And perhaps, so be it.


 

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