It would cost New Mexico $9 million each year to access funds intended to conserve endangered species and plants and avoid federal restrictions on land access.
US Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) last year enacted the Restoring America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) to provide $1.4 billion annually to state wildlife and native wildlife management agencies to restore habitats and species across the country.
It passed through the U.S. House earlier this year and then went to the Senate for a vote, with many lawmakers anticipating the bill would pass due to broad bipartisan support.
The House version has 152 Democratic Party co-sponsors and 42 Republican co-sponsors, data shows. In the Senate, Heinrich’s version had 25 Democratic co-sponsors, 16 Republicans and one independent.
The funding would be tied to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which lists species as either the most serious “endangered” or the lesser “endangered” status.
Listing both statuses results in land use restrictions intended to protect the status of a listed species.
That could reduce industrial activities like oil and gas drilling, such as in southeastern New Mexico, amid populations of the little prairie chicken that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing as endangered throughout the region and western Texas.
To offset some of the cost of wildlife conservation and prevent such federal action, RAWA would allocate $27 million a year to New Mexico through the Department of Game and Fish.
But the bill requires states to provide matching funds, meaning the state of New Mexico would have to spend an additional $9 million annually to access the program.
This spending was a sticking point for lawmakers in the Interim Committee on Water and Natural Resources when they met Friday at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola.
Michael Sloane, director of Fish and Wildlife, said his department would request special credit for this year’s budget for the first year of the RAWA program.
He said Game and Fish gets about $1 million each year for the work, which isn’t enough to make a difference.
“Placing species on these lists reduces New Mexico’s biodiversity and limits access to land. RAWA will give us the funding to pursue more and bigger projects for the benefit of endangered species,” Sloane said. “New Mexico’s biodiversity should be celebrated and enhanced.”
But lawmakers were concerned that a one-time allocation might not set the agency up for future years of RAWA funding.
sen. Peter Wirth (D-25) suggested the money come from recurring revenue and be placed as an item in the general state fund, which forms its budget each year, as agreed by lawmakers at the annual session.
“This is a great piece of legislation, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that it crosses the finish line. My questions are about where we’re going to find the $9 million,” Wirth said.
“I don’t see this as a window to use one-time resources. 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 whether legislature funding was the right idea for a department hitherto funded primarily by hunting and fishing licenses, but could be the subject of more discussion from lawmakers if the $ 9 million would be allocated from the budget.
“You’ve self-financed pretty well 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 whether a focus on restoring endangered species would shift Game and Fish from the regulation of hunting and fishing, and address environmental issues such as climate change and pollution, which are believed to be a driving factor behind threats to the world. species in New Mexico.
“It sounds like you’re going to change the scope of your department,” Woods said. “We will no longer manage hunting animals. We are also going to manage wildlife.”
Sloane objected that the department always had the authority to manage endangered, non-game species, but lacked the resources to do so.
With funding under RAWA and through the $9 million credit, he said Game and Fish could fulfill an important role in protecting New Mexico’s struggling plants and animals.
“It is not a change in our department. We already have that legal authority,” he said. “We just don’t have enough money to make a real generational difference for those species.”
Rep. Martin Zamora (R-63) urged lawmakers and state officials to focus funding on educating farmers and ranchers already operating on land amid species habitats in conservation practices.
“I hope 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[agricultural and ranching]groups in the state of New Mexico, and I think we need to involve those groups a lot in these conversations when this legislation comes up.
“It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of rules.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.