Like many western states, New Mexico’s legislature meets on a truncated schedule — 60 days on odd years and 30 days on even years — providing a limited window to pass legislation and giving each session a unique sense of urgency. Typically, the 30-day session is almost wholly focused on budget issues, which means legislation dealing with wildlife can only be attempted every two years.
Although urgency is a constant, the lead-in to this year’s session had a heightened level of anticipation. In the fall, conservation-minded candidates made huge gains at the ballot box. Michelle Lujan-Grisham, who racked up a nearly 100% lifetime score from Defenders during her years in Congress, won the governorship, and the House of Representatives picked up a significant conservation majority as well.
Defenders, along with the broader conservation community, was excited to push a number of landmark bills related to a range of environmental issues, and although many bills succeeded, including the Energy Transition Act, which will put New Mexico on track for 100% renewable energy by 2045, others did not.
Here are some of the top wildlife and public lands related legislation that Defenders contributed to and followed throughout the session:
SB 228, Wildlife Corridors Act
The Wildlife Corridors Act was one of Defenders’ top priorities during this session. In addition to helping draft the bill along with the Department of Game and Fish, the Department of Transportation, and the bill’s sponsor, Senator Mimi Stewart, I also served as the expert witness during committee hearings and on both floors of the House and Senate.
This was the first session for the bill, and it quickly gained strong support from a wide range of groups including environmental, sportsmen and animal rights organizations, tribes, and even car insurance agencies.
The bill directs the two agencies to work with one another to develop a statewide Wildlife Corridors Action Plan that will identify existing migration routes and places where New Mexico highways or other developments have impeded wildlife movement, along with projections of how drought and other effects of climate change may impact the daily and seasonal movement of wildlife. Additionally, the plan will include a list of priority roadway infrastructure projects such as fencing, underpasses, and overpasses that will help protect both wildlife and the traveling public.
Governor Lujan-Grisham signed the bill last Friday, and Defenders is looking forward to helping implement it as the Departments develop the initial plan over the next year.
SB 462, Office of Outdoor Recreation
Across the West, more and more states are starting to realize the economic potential of outdoor recreation and, in order to fully capture this growing market, are creating outdoor recreation offices to organize and support local communities and businesses.
SB 462 aimed to do this same thing, but with a unique twist; the bill also included an Outdoor Equity Fund that will be available to help youth in underserved communities have the opportunity to get outside and enjoy New Mexico’s unparalleled natural resources.
Considering how many of our environmental problems stem from the fact that so few people today have a foundational connection to the natural world, ensuring that as many New Mexicans as possible are able to experience our state’s natural wonders will be essential. From the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument to the Valles Caldera National Preserve and even the riparian forests of the Rio Grande, more of New Mexico’s youth will have an opportunity to visit and learn from these remarkable landscapes.
In 2017, the legislature passed a memorial to plant pollinator friendly gardens on the grounds of New Mexico’s Capitol. This year, the Wild Friends, a youth-led civics education program focused on wildlife, went a step further and brought forward a bill to create a pollinator protection license plate. The proceeds from license plate sales will be used to plant pollinator friendly gardens in highway medians and demonstration plots at rest stops throughout the state.
Given reports that show hundreds of native bee species are in decline, it’s important, now more than ever, that we protect and create habitat for these ecological vital species. Although this bill may only represent a drop in the bucket for what we need to do to protect bees and other pollinators, it will also create invaluable education opportunities that will help raise the profile of this dire issue.
Did Not Pass
SB 38, Wildlife Trafficking Act
In 2017, Defenders worked with sponsors Sen. Mimi Stewart and Rep. Gail Chasey on a similar wildlife trafficking bill. That year, the bill made it through both the Senate and the House, but was pocket vetoed by then-Governor Martinez.
The only difference between that bill and this year’s bill was that SB 38 included live animals as well as parts and products. In 2017, six other states had similar bills, but since then, New Hampshire, Illinois, and Nevada have added their names to the growing lists of states passing wildlife trafficking laws intended to mirror federal statutes in order to empower local law enforcement and close any loopholes that may exist.
New Mexico could have been the 10th state to pass such a bill, but on the final morning of the session, the House sponsor was forced to roll the bill once debate began to run long. It was a particularly painful defeat since we almost certainly had the votes to get it through.
HB 263, Game Commission Reform
This is the second year that Rep. Matthew McQueen has introduced a bill to reform the structure of the game commission, require more qualified candidates, and institute greater balance in order to limit the influence of politics.
The bill made it through the house fairly quickly, but was assigned to the Senate Rules committee where it sat for over a month before being tabled on the second to last day of the session.
With Governor Lujan-Grisham in office, we hope to see better qualified candidates appointed to the commission regardless of anything required in statute, but we will remain committed to ensuring long-term structural changes to the commission.
HB 332, Rural Heritage Act
In New Mexico, lands in agriculture are taxed at a much lower rate than typical residential homes. Without this tax bracket, the prospect of owning large amounts of lands would be untenable due to high residential taxes.
HB 332 aimed to create a conservation tax bracket that would have fallen in between the agriculture and residential rates. Not only would this have created a fiscal incentive for people to do conservation restoration on their land, but for aging landowners or anyone no longer interested in farming or ranching, it would have provided a way to remain on the land. Especially since selling to developers who will subdivide the land and construct houses is often the other option, it’s essential that we create tools that allow people keep land in open space where it can provide necessary habitat for wildlife.
SB 417, Game Commission Purposes and Species and SB 203, Rename Dept. of Game & Fish as Wildlife Department
These two bills introduced by Sen. Jeff Steinborn would have helped move the Department of Game and Fish closer to our vision of a “wildlife” department rather than a “game” department.
Most simply, SB 203 would have instituted this name change. Currently, 22 states have “wildlife” in the title of their applicable agency while only 11 states still use the term “game”. While this shift would be largely symbolic, it would help make strides toward changing the culture of the department so that it gives equal priority to game and nongame species.
SB 417 would have given the game commission the authority to manage a greater array of species. Currently, the Department only has authority to manage about 60% of the native wildlife in New Mexico, which in part speaks to its culture as a “game” department. In 2017, Steinborn introduced a similar bill that was considered an “unfunded mandate”, but this year’s bill specifically noted that the game commission’s ability to expand the Department’s authority would be contingent on the availability of the necessary resources.
HB 366 Wildlife Protection and Public Safety Act and SB 390 Trapping Regulation Changes
In January, news broke that four Mexican gray wolves had been caught in traps in New Mexico over the previous two months. One died, one had a leg amputated, and the other two were released, presumably, unharmed.
While these incidents made it painfully clear that trapping is undermining the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf, two bills introduced during the 2019 session attempted alternate strategies to address these kinds of conflicts.
HB 366 would have banned traps on all public lands in New Mexico, while SB 390 would have forced the game commission to consider things like public safety and nontarget species when determining where trapping should and should not be allowed.
In addition to running the Wildlife Trafficking Act again, Defenders will be looking for other opportunities to work on bills that expand the authority of the Department of Game and Fish, create new sources of funding for the Department that allow all New Mexicans to contribute to wildlife conservation that are not dependent on hunting and fishing license sales, and otherwise ensure that the Department has the necessary structure and authority to combat the mounting challenges our wildlife face.
Also, while we’ll be working to implement the Wildlife Corridors Act, we will be looking for other legislative opportunities to protect connectivity of aquatic and riparian ecosystems and make sure that these areas are able to support robust populations of fish, amphibians, birds, and other species that depend on these habitats.