3 Questions

3 Questions with WildEarth Guardians Wildlife Program Director Chris Smith

Santa Fe son returns to make room for all the living beings

American West conservation nonprofit WildEarth Guardians recently announced Santa Fe native Chris Smith’s promotion to wildlife program director. Smith spent roughly a decade in the Pacific Northwest as a community organizer and environmental activist before returning home in 2017 to work at the Santa Fe-based organization. Since then, he’s played a key role shaping wildlife legislative initiatives in New Mexico, including a 2021 ban on using animal traps, snares or poisons on public land. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. (Evan Chandler)

You grew up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains here in Northern New Mexico. How does that upbringing inform the work you’ve done?

I think just growing up in a place like this when there were fewer people and more wildness, there’s just an implicit understanding that we would always be living among wildlife. I mean, growing up out in the country, there were constantly deer and jackrabbits and cottontails crossing the road, and we heard coyotes every night and it wasn’t rare to see owls and hawks around and we collected tadpoles from what used to be wetlands, which are now pretty dry places. That instilled in me this kind of modus operandi to just constantly respect and be curious about the other living things around us and not to have such a human-centric view of the world all the time.

How does climate change specifically impact wildlife in the American Southwest, and what efforts are you taking to address those impacts?

New Mexico is a really interesting place because we are contributing so much fossil fuel production to the problem of climate change. Simultaneously, we have both human communities and also non-human wildlife communities that are at the frontlines of climate change and are exposed to the dangers of it. And I think that makes New Mexico really relevant in the discussion of climate change and the climate crisis. Pertaining to wildlife specifically, New Mexico is—by most measures—the fifth most biodiverse state in America, so we have an incredible array of flora and fauna. Climate change is driving the biodiversity crisis and is driving the extinction crisis, so New Mexico in a lot of ways has a lot to lose as these fragile landscapes undergo rapid change and face some of those climate change impacts.

What I would love to see here specifically in New Mexico is improved policies and understanding that helps us recover the Mexican gray wolf, which right now is a pretty imperiled population in the southwest part of the state in the Gila wilderness region. It’s come a long way since its recovery began about 25 or 30 years ago, but we have so much further to go.

As someone who was educated in religious studies, you say you like to think about humans’ relationship with wildness from an ethical perspective. Where do you place the intersection between wildlife and religion?

I think a lot of people, whether it’s through a religious framework—organized or otherwise—or a spiritual or an ethical framework, ask ourselves in those contexts: ‘How do we relate to things that are vulnerable?’ Those could be people or communities or others that are reliant on our grace, in some ways, and that’s an interesting or maybe a disempowering way to put it, but the fact is we have immense impact and power over everything on the planet and how we use that power and how we recognize how much space we are taking up vis-à-vis all of the other living things on the planet, I think has to be answered from an ethical standpoint.

If we want to have a culture, a society, a human race that perseveres and thrives in the challenges that we are increasingly facing, we need to have humility to understand that we cannot take up all the space, we cannot take up all the oxygen, we cannot exert our power as though we are the only things that matter.

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