Elk Migrating across Cerro de la Olla © John Miles

New Mexico’s Wildlife Corridors Act: A path toward success

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By Michael Dax, Defenders of Wildlife

Whether it’s pronghorn on the eastern plains, elk in the upper Rio Grande or bighorn sheep in the Red River Gorge, New Mexico’s wildlife, both big and small, requires large tracts of intact habitat. Species need the ability to move, whether that means seeking out lower elevation areas during winter, moving throughout river systems to avoid localized threats or migrating to cooler environments as climate change makes certain areas inhospitable.

In the twentieth century, conservation efforts focused on protecting important wildlife strongholds like national parks and wildlife refuges. However, a growing body of science has recently helped elucidate the importance of daily and seasonal migration routes that can span hundreds of miles with little respect for political boundaries. Over the last decade, the U.S. Forest Service designated the first wildlife corridor in Wyoming, the Western Governors Association launched an initiative designed to further understand and protect connectivity, the Department of the Interior issued a Secretarial Order encouraging western states to increase research efforts, and congressional leaders introduced legislation to identify and designate wildlife corridors throughout the country.

The Baggs Underpass is about six miles north of Baggs on WYO 789 at reference marker 45. WYDOT's wildlife biologist has been monitoring this underpass since October 2009.

The Baggs Underpass is about six miles north of Baggs on WYO 789 at reference marker 45. WYDOT’s wildlife biologist has been monitoring this underpass since October 2009 © WYDOT

Now, even states are getting involved. Wyoming has proposed designating two additional corridors; and in April, New Mexico became the first state to pass legislation intended to comprehensively identify and maintain the habitat areas that wildlife depend on the most.

While groundbreaking, this was not the first legislation that New Mexico passed related to corridor conservation. In 2003, Senator Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), then a representative, sponsored a memorial encouraging New Mexico Department of Transportation (DOT) and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to share information about wildlife crossings. In 2011, she passed another memorial directing the agencies to develop a pilot traffic safety project that helped produce successful work in Tijeras Canyon, east of Albuquerque, along I-40. Then, in 2013, she passed a third memorial to further identify high collision areas and educate the public on how to avoid them.

Tijeras Canyon Wildlife Crossing, © NM DOT

Tijeras Canyon Wildlife Crossing, © NM DOT

Building off those successes, Senator Stewart prepared to run a bill during the 2019 legislative session. Late during the summer of 2018, we sat down with staff from DOT and Game and Fish, including Jim Hirsch and Mark Watson, both of whom had been integral to the Tijeras Canyon project. While we had our own ideas of what a corridors bill might look like, we started by learning about what connectivity related work the two agencies had been doing and what they saw as their major needs.

As they explained, their work up to that point had been sporadic and piecemeal. When road construction was planned, they would look for potential conflicts with wildlife and build safe passage infrastructure into the existing projects. Over the previous decade they had been able to plan and build a number of structures that made New Mexico’s roads safer for people and wildlife, but as they recognized, this opportunistic approach failed to capture any larger picture. What they needed was the direction and authority to plan based on the needs of wildlife, not the construction priorities of road managers.

Bighorn in Rio Grande Gorge © John Miles

Bighorn in Rio Grande Gorge © John Miles

Over the following months, we worked with colleagues at Wildlands Network to draft what eventually became SB 228, the Wildlife Corridors Act. The bill directed the two agencies to work with one another to develop a Wildlife Corridors Action Plan (WCAP), modeled on State Wildlife Action Plans that identify sensitive species and habitats. Included in this plan would be information about existing highway crossings and other human barriers that negatively impact wildlife migration, projections of anticipated effects from climate change, and science on how increased movement of species could benefit highly impacted habitats like riparian areas. It also encouraged the agencies to collaborate with stakeholders and required consultation with tribal governments.

In this way, the WCAP would serve as a clearinghouse for information and research related to how wildlife moves throughout the state, but beyond that, it was also important that the bill help produce on-the-ground projects. To this end, the WCAP would include a list of priority safe passage projects. With projects already identified through an objective review process, the agencies would then be able to proceed with construction as funds became available and would not need to wait for other planned road construction.

Cougar © MasterImages

Cougar © MasterImages

With the bill’s language starting to come together and the legislative session quickly approaching, we began to reach out to partner organizations to secure support; and unlike any other bill I have worked on, endorsements came pouring in. From traditional environmental and humane-focused groups like Sierra Club, Animal Protection New Mexico, and Audubon to more sportsmen’s oriented groups like New Mexico Wildlife Federation and HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors), enthusiasm for the bill was unbelievable. The Pueblo of Santa Ana, which has completed significant on-the-ground work to improve wildlife connectivity, also endorsed the bill, as did the conservation-minded landowner group, Western Landowners Alliance. During committee hearings, we even enjoyed favorable testimony from Allstate Insurance, which also wants to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. For a brief period, one of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to squeeze everyone’s logos on our fact sheet!

With so much support leading into the session, I couldn’t help but be optimistic about the bill’s prospects. Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham, who was sworn into office just before the session, had already indicated support for other conservation initiatives, and the State House had gained a conservation majority during the mid-term elections.

Despite this positive energy, the committee process proved more difficult than we expected. In speaking about the bill, we stressed its dual purpose – wildlife conservation and public safety. We explained that wildlife-vehicle collisions were becoming more common. In 2013, DOT reported 1,228 such accidents, but by 2016, that number had jumped 33% to 1,637 collisions. According to DOT, this amounted to an annual cost of nearly $20 million between insurance claims, medical bills, lost time at work and other subsequent expenses.

But the good news, we explained, was that safe passage infrastructure works. We cited examples from Arizona and Banff, Canada where such projects were able to reduce elk collisions by 90% and all wildlife collisions by 80%, respectively.

Deer under Hyak Underpass, I-90, Washington © Conservation Northwest copy

Deer under Hyak Underpass, I-90, Washington © Conservation Northwest

In our first committee hearing, at least one senator, who had hit a deer a few years earlier, understood the importance and potential good that could come from the bill. Unfortunately, another senator raised a concern about the possibility of conflict with ranchers and private property rights, which would prove to be the bill’s most significant point of contention.

In fact, though, the bill did not contain any regulatory mechanism that could force participation. Its focus was on identifying places where wildlife was already moving and aiding those migrations, not arbitrarily “building a corridor” and forcing wildlife into new areas, as certain skeptics believed. Some people also feared facilitating wildlife passage would lead to more livestock being struck by cars on roadways. Buoyed by support from agricultural interests, this concern came up again and again, even after a Senate floor amendment ensured that any participation of private landowners would be voluntary.

Funding for the bill also became a point of contention; and as the bill made its way through the Senate and into the House, the funding mechanism seesawed at each committee hearing. The introduced bill appropriated $500K from the state’s general fund, but after hearing from the chairman of Senate Finance that would untenable, we worked with Game and Fish to leverage funds from their budget. At that point, the Department was only willing to commit $100,000 with the idea that $300,000 could be matched through a Pittman-Robertson grant.

However, after a separate attempt to transfer funds from Game and Fish to another state agency created political backlash, the new DOT secretary committed the original $500,00 from their budget.

Despite these lingering issues, the bill moved through the process relatively smoothly. After passing Senate Conservation 7-1, it squeaked through Senate Finance 5-4, thanks to a Republican Senator from Farmington who had experienced the benefits of wildlife fencing designed to protect wildlife migrating out of Colorado to winter range in New Mexico. The debate on the Senate floor lasted more than an hour, but the bill passed 24-18.

Cerro de la Olla © John Miles

Elk migrating across Cerro de la Olla along a wildlife corridor between northern New Mexico and southern Colorado © John Miles

In the House, it faired much better, passing 7-5 in the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources committee, and 7-0 in State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs committee, chaired by our House sponsor, Rep. Georgene Louis (D-Abq). On the House floor, it sailed through with a resounding 51-12 vote. Two weeks later, Governor Lujan-Grisham signed the bill into law, making it the first of its kind anywhere in the country!

Since SB 228 was signed into law, national attention on corridor conservation has continued to grow. US Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Reprentative Don Beyer (D-VA) reintroduced their Wildlife Conservation Corridors Act, which would create a national system of wildlife corridors and provide $50 million in grants to help states protect these migration routes. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has distributed additional funds to western states, including New Mexico, to conduct GPS collaring studies to better understand how wildlife are using the landscape.

Meanwhile, DOT and Game and Fish have been taking the first steps toward fulfilling the vision of SB 228. We will continue our work with them to make sure that the plan is as robust and detailed as possible, so that New Mexico will prove to be the model we know it can be.

We will help advise the state on what projects should make the priority list. Among our recommendations are infrastructure on I-25 to reconnect the Jemez Mountains with the Sandia Mountains via the Pueblo of Santa Ana, US-550 between Cuba and Farmington – a notoriously high collision area, and across I-10 in southwestern New Mexico where the highway bisects desert bighorn habitat in the Peloncillo Mountains. Of course, we also hope for the state’s first overpass and can’t help but think that Tijeras Canyon – the first major corridor project – would be the perfect place to bring this effort full circle!

Taos Plain view of Cerro de Yuta and Colorado beyond © John Miles

View of Cerro de Yuta and Colorado beyond, a wildlife corridor across the Taos Plain accentuated by sky islands of protection  © John Miles

As much work as it was for this bill to become law, the real work has barely begun if we are to make this vision of connected wildlands a reality on the ground. With support at all levels of government and across a broad range of stakeholders, I know New Mexico is ready to be the leader our wildlife needs.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  • Write and call your US senators and representative in support of the federal Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act.
  • Study examples from New Mexico, Oregon (which just passed a similar bill), New Hampshire, and California, and speak with your state representatives about advancing similar legislation in your state.
  • If you live in one of the states that recently passed a corridors bill, pay attention to where you’re seeing roadkill and animals close to roads and engage in the development of your state’s corridors action plan.
  • Support the connectivity work of Defenders of Wildlife, Wildlands Network, Center for Large Landscape Conservation, and other groups working for safe wildlife crossings …

______________________

Michael Dax

Michael Dax

Michael Dax is the New Mexico Representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Santa Fe. Before moving to New Mexico, he worked in Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks as a trail groomer and tour guide. Michael earned a master’s degree in environmental history from the Universityof Montana where he began work on his book, Grizzly West, which focuses on the attempt to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana and Idaho.


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