New Mexico needs $9 million to access wildlife restoration funds if bill passes Congress

It would take $9 million every year for New Mexico to access funds intended to preserve imperiled species and plants and prevent federal restrictions to land access.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced the Restoring America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) last year to appropriate $1.4 billion annually to state and Indigenous wildlife management agencies to restore habitats and species across the country.

It passed the U.S. House earlier this year, and was next going to the Senate for a vote with many legislators anticipating the bill would pass due to broad bipartisan support.

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The House version has 152 cosponsors from the Democratic Party, and 42 Republicans cosponsors, records show. In the Senate, Heinrich’s version had 25 Democratic cosponsors, 16 Republicans and one Independent.

The funding would be tied to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which sees species listed as either the direst “endangered” or the lesser “threatened” status.

A listing of either status results in restrictions to land uses designed to protect a listed species’ status.

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That can reduce industrial activities like oil and gas drilling, such as in southeast New Mexico amidst populations of the lesser prairie chicken which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing as endangered throughout the region and West Texas.

To offset some of the costs of wildlife management, and prevent such federal actions, RAWA would earmark $27 million a year for New Mexico through its Department of Game and Fish.

But the bill requires states provide matching funds, and that means the State of New Mexico would need to spend an additional $9 million annually to gain access to the program.

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This spending was a sticking point for lawmakers in the interim Water and Natural Resources Committee as they met Friday at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola.

Fish and Wildlife Director Michael Sloane said his department would request a special appropriation to this year’s budget for the first year of the RAWA program.

He said Game and Fish gets about $1 million every year for the work, which is insufficient to make a difference.

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“Listing species on these lists reduces New Mexico’s biodiversity and restricts its access to lands. RAWA will give us the funding to pursue more and larger projects to benefit imperiled species,” Sloane said. "New Mexico’s biodiversity is to be celebrated and enhanced.”

But lawmakers were concerned that a one-time appropriation might not set up the agency for future years of RAWA funding.

Sen. Peter Wirth (D-25) suggested the money come from recurring revenue and be placed as a line item in the State’s General Fund which forms its budget every year as agreed to by lawmakers during the annual session.

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“This is an amazing piece of legislation, and we’ll have our fingers crossed that it gets across the finish line. My questions are going to concern where we are going to find the $9 million,” Wirth said.

“I don’t look at this as a window to use non-recurring funds. We need to build this into our budget. This feels to me like something that needs its own line item.”

Sen. Pat Woods (R-7) questioned if funding from the legislature was the right idea for a Department that so far is primarily funded through licensing for hunting and fishing, but could be subject to more debate from lawmakers if the $9 million was granted from the budget.

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“You have pretty well been self-funded with everything you do,” he said. “Now you’re going to give that up if we put you in the general fund.”

He also questioned if a focus on restoring endangered species would shift Game and Fish away from its regulation of hunting and fishing, and wade into environmental issues like climate change and pollution believe to be a driving factor of threats to species in New Mexico.

“It sounds like you’re going to be changing the scope of your department,” Woods said. “We’re no longer going to be managing game animals. We’re going to be managing wildlife as well.”

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Sloane countered that the Department always had the authority to managed endangered, non-games species but lacked the funds to do so.

With the funding under RAWA and through the $9 million appropriation, he said Game and Fish would be able to fulfill an important duty of protecting New Mexico’s struggling plants and animals.

“It’s not a change in our department. We have that statutory authority already,” he said. “We just haven’t had sufficient funds to make a real generational difference for those species.”

Rep. Martin Zamora (R-63) urged lawmakers and state officials to focus the funding on educating farmers and ranchers already operating on the lands amidst species habitats in conservation practices.

“I hope that this Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will be more for educating the farmer and ranchers to be better stewards of the land,” he said. “We see (farming and ranching) groups in the state of New Mexico, and I believe we ought to have those groups involved in a lot in these conversations when this legislation gets brought up.

“It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of rules.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: NM needs $9 million to access federal wildlife restoration funds