Monday, December 29, 2008

Hunting Revision Targeted by Some

A battle is brewing between ranchers and sportsmen over a new regulation that would allow the state to penalize hunters who stray onto unfenced, unposted private land.
A licensed hunter who trespasses onto even a fenced and well-posted ranch and shoots a trophy elk can be charged with criminal trespass, but the hunter is not necessarily violating state hunting rules. And the absence of a hunting rules violation would mean the Game & Fish Department wouldn't have the authority to seize the trophy — something that irks wardens, landowners and law-abiding sportsmen.
"Somebody can sneak on my property. And if they've got a tag valid for my unit, they keep their bull. They get a trespass ticket," said Dan Brooks, Game & Fish's chief of law enforcement.
The state Game Commission recently approved a change — effective April 1 — that would make such trespassing a violation of hunting rules and allow officers to confiscate ill-gotten elk.
But New Mexico Wildlife Federation executive director Jeremy Vesbach said the new regulation is too broad and also would apply to hunters who unknowingly stray onto patches of unmarked private lands that checkerboard some of the state's hunting grounds — branding those hunters as poachers in the process.
The federation and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, which wants the regulation to remain as it is, are marshaling opposing forces for a special Game Commission meeting on the matter Jan. 10.
"We want to have the highest penalties we can for the poachers," said Vesbach. But "when Game & Fish went to fix (the rules), they made it too broad."
Caren Cowan, executive director of the cattle growers, said hunters should have the responsibility of knowing where they are at all times while in the field.
As a landowner, "posting doesn't do you a lot of good. People shoot up the signs, tear them down," Cowan said. "Private property is private property. And if someone trespasses, there's a penalty for that."
State law defines criminal trespass as "knowingly" going onto posted private property without having written permission from the landowner. To comply with the posting requirement, ranchers must post notices at access points such as roadways — and if the land is unfenced, they must post notices every 500 feet.
The new hunting regulation doesn't make any reference to posting requirements and specifies only that public-land elk licenses are not valid on private lands without written permission. Hunters breaking the rule would be committing a separate game-law violation, subjecting them to fines and confiscation of their trophies.
A similar written-permission rule has been in place for the past several years for deer hunters, Brooks said.
Vesbach said the federation wants the new regulation narrowed to include the word "knowingly" and to specify that it applies to properly posted private lands. Several other New Mexico outdoors groups back such a change.
"The idea is to protect the person who's hunting BLM or Forest Service (land) and accidentally crosses an unmarked, unfenced boundary," Vesbach said. "You can't rely on a map and know you're OK. They (maps) don't keep up with land trades."
The Game Commission during a meeting earlier this month was slated to consider a new, broader trespassing rule that includes language on posting requirements but postponed the matter.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Howls of protest greet Mexican wolf reintroduction

Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, N.M.

On a cold, wind-whipped November morning, about 90 minutes south of Albuquerque, N.M., a line of people faces off against a pack of wolves. They clutch poles, nets, and lassos, props not necessarily meant for use, but to make them look bigger. A US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) official tells them not to worry, there’s little danger. But if a wolf tries to break the line, don’t go sticking out a limb.

Most of these wolves, an endangered Southwestern subspecies, were born and bred in captivity. They’re the fruit of a 25-year-old plan by the FWS to reestablish the Mexican wolf in the wild.

The captive wolves live between two hills on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, their enclosures largely isolated from human sights, sounds, and smells as a rewilding exercise. They can’t be habituated to a human presence; without sufficient fear of people, they won’t last long in the wild. Indeed, only the most fearful will be released at all.

The animals’ alarm has been evident since the first truck came into sight up the dirt road. They lope tirelessly around the well-worn trails that line the perimeters of their enclosures. They occasionally leap up against the 12-foot-high chain link fences. Innate fear is partly responsible, explains Maggie Dwire, an assistant coordinator with the FWS’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. But wolves also anticipate – and presumably dread – the chase, muzzling, poking, and prodding that often accompany human visits. “That’s fine with me,” she says.

On command, the line moves forward. No wolf sedatives will be administered today. But too much frenzy, and the wolves might simply drop dead in what wildlife experts call “capture myo­pathy.” Today’s exercise is for the wolves’ own good, but the scene – a row of tool-wielding homo sapiens moving steadily toward increasingly frantic wolves – evokes the long and complicated history between the two species. Some Native American groups viewed wolves as equals of a sort, a social animal that also hunted cooperatively.

But as Europeans colonized North America with livestock in tow, wolves were systematically poisoned and hunted off the land. For much of the past century, the FWS, now charged with bringing the wolf back, headed that extermination.

The Southwestern wolf-reintroduction program has been less successful than reintroduction programs in the northern Rockies. Different socioeconomic realities and a different landscape have complicated the Mexican wolf’s comeback. Some ranchers near the recovery area, a 6,745-square-mile swath straddling the New Mexico-Arizona border, say wolves have no place there. Conservationists counter that the recovery area, 95 percent national forest, is public land and should be wild, predators included. They cite the Endangered Species Act (ESA) – the Mexican wolf is the most endangered of five subspecies in the US – and they point to evidence that top predators enhance ecosystem health.

Each camp accuses FWS of favoring the other. Conservationists say FWS has caved to ranching interests and failed in its mandate to recover the wolf. Ranchers charge it with destroying their way of life.

People may be tougher to manage than wolves

“We might have underestimated the social implications of wolf reintroduction,” says FWS Southwest Re­­gional Director Benjamin Tuggle, of the recovery plan. While some dispute this characterization – plenty of research was done on social realities, they say – it does raise a question of rising concern among “hard” scientists. Is conservation about managing nature, or people?

After wolves returned to Yellowstone in 1995, aspens, long mysteriously declining, returned. Willow stands along riverbanks grew more robust. The greater diversity of trees hosted more bird species. Scientists concluded that, during wolves’ long absence from the area, elk and deer had overgrazed willow and aspen. Now, wary of ambush, they avoid dense stands of trees.

“The elk have changed their behavior based on the risk of predation,” says ecologist William Ripple at Oregon State University, Corvallis. The insight: Predators affect ecosystems not only by direct predation, but by inspiring fear.

Smaller than its northern cousin, the Mexican wolf once ranged throughout the “sky islands” – higher elevations areas – of the US Southwest and Mexico. By 1970, poisoning and trapping had eradicated it from the US. By the late 1970s, scientists could find just five individuals in northern Mexico. All Mexican wolves today – some 300 in zoos and breeding centers across the country and 52 in the wild – descend from just seven individuals.

“Evolution never ceases, and now it’s taking place in a captive environment,” says Dave Parsons, formerly with the FWS and now with the Rewilding Institute, a conservation organization in Albuquerque. “The longer they’re in captivity, the less adaptable they’re going to be … as reintroduction stock.”

The first captive-bred Mexican wolves entered the wild 10 years ago. The goal: 102 wolves in nine years. But the population is just half that. Pro-wolfers often fault the FWS. The agency has killed or removed (to permanent captivity) 47 wolves. Poachers have taken 29.

“With one hand they’re putting them out, and with the other hand they’re taking them back,” says Michael Robinson, an advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City, N.M. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is operating a control program masquerading as a recovery program.”

Stock losses rise 4 to 10 percent

A 2007 resolution by the American Society of Mammalogists called for suspension of all predator control until the goal of 100 wolves was reached.
But ranchers say there’s no room for wolves here.

Hugh McKeen, commissioner of Catron County, a locus of antiwolf sentiment, says some ranchers have seen yearly stock losses rise from 4 to 10 percent. Defenders of Wildlife offers compensation, but, says Mr. McKeen, the criteria are so stringent that, for every successful claim, many others go uncompensated. (Defenders has paid $106,493 for 176 domestic animals killed by wolves in the Southwest.)

The wolf “should never have been [introduced] in this area,” says McKeen. “You’ve got wolves in Canada, in Alaska, but down here, there are just too many people and too little game.”

Yet several polls show widespread public support for wolf reintroduction in both Arizona and New Mexico. Joe Saenz, a Chiricahua Apache and owner of WildHorse Outfitters in Silver City, applauds the wolf’s return. They attract customers eager to hear and see them, he says. They’ll also help restore an out-of-balance landscape. He understands ranchers’ concerns, but ranchers operate fine with wolves and grizzlies present elsewhere.

“You just have to be more vigilant,” he says. “Some teach people to kill all the snakes so you can walk around the grass. We were taught to walk carefully.”
Others raise the issue of what should happen on public lands, and who should pay for it. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that grazing allotments on public land cost taxpayers $115 million yearly. Ranchers pay $1.35 per cow-calf pair monthly. Grazing on private land, meanwhile, costs between $10 and $20 per pair monthly, says John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe, N.M. “It ends up being quite a subsidy,” he says.

No shortage of issues or complexity

Historically, the US government enticed people to the West with the promise of free predator control and cheap grazing. Modern conservationists call that “welfare.” Ranchers still see themselves as pioneers on land no one else wanted. To them, the wolf-recovery program is meddling – or worse, betrayal.

“Why do you have to destroy a people to recover an animal or protect an animal?” says Jess Carey, Catron County’s wolf investigator. The ESA “wasn’t set up to destroy families, but that’s exactly what it’s doing.”

Says Parsons, “There’s no shortage of issues, and there’s no shortage of complexity.”

Defenders of Wildlife says it is restructuring its compensation program to share the costs of antiwolf measures up front – fences and extra rangers – to preempt predation rather than pay for livestock already lost.

Parsons and Horning hope to buy and retire grazing allotments, an idea that interests some ranchers, at least privately, says Parsons. The obstacle: guaranteeing that allotments won’t be reauctioned later. That depends on federal legislation that doesn’t exist yet, he says.

Tuggle thinks ranchers are integral to the program’s success. They’re natural stewards, and working ranches are bulwarks against wilderness-unfriendly development, he says. He intends to create a fund and pay for proactive antiwolf ranching practices with the interest. And, alluding to recent political shifts, Tuggle foresees an eventual revamping of the recovery program.

“The program is not going away,” he says. But “it’s absolutely critical that we do not make the mistake we made when we first started. And that is to say ‘Here is the wolf program. Here are the wolves. Deal with it.’ ”

Election alters wilderness fight outlook

LAS CRUCES — Some people are wondering how a change in New Mexico's congressional delegation will impact a proposal for designating thousands of acres in Doña Ana County as wilderness.

The proposal for an official federal wilderness designation, initially put forward in late 2005, stalled after it lost support from outgoing U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and was opposed by outgoing U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who backed a different land-use plan favored by ranchers.

But Domenici is retiring, and Pearce unsuccessfully sought election this year to Domenici's Senate seat. Replacing them are Sen.-elect Tom Udall, now a congressman from northern New Mexico, and Rep.-elect Harry Teague, both Democrats.

Teague, in a phone interview two weeks ago, said he's already spoken to some constituents about the wilderness proposal, but is still gathering information. He said he doesn't have a stance yet.

"I don't really have everything I need to have about that," Teague said.

Marissa Padilla, a spokeswoman for Udall, said the senator-elect will invite and listen to all of the various parties to build consensus on the wilderness. Udall looks forward to working with Bingaman, Teague and the members of the new delegation to take steps toward the introduction of legislation, she said.

Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said that, in January, the senator will begin talks with Doña Ana County residents and the new delegation "with the intention of developing wilderness legislation."

A group backed by ranchers and off-road vehicle users, called People for Preserving Our Western Heritage, has butted heads with the Doña Ana County Wilderness Coalition over its proposal for wilderness. The pro-wilderness group includes conservationists, sportsmen and some developers.

Frank DuBois, a former agriculture secretary for New Mexico who's involved with the ranching group, said members aren't concerned about the changes in Washington, D.C.

"We look forward to working with Sen. Bingaman and new members of the congressional delegation," he said. "We think we've got a proposal that not only protects the land and has more of a public benefit for more people to enjoy."

DuBois said the group has met with Bingaman about the matter and has requested to meet with Udall and Teague.

Meanwhile, Jeff Steinborn, local director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the change in the congressional delegation is favorable, considering Pearce was opposed to a wilderness designation.

"It's hopeful to have people there who aren't ideologically opposed to you on ideological grounds," he said.

Steinborn said backers of wilderness have been in touch with members of the delegation, but he said he's not aware of any immediate plans for legislation.

"Having said that, clearly our delegation is now engaged in this issue, and we're very hopeful we can get legislation introduced in the next few months because it's time," he said. "We've all been at this as a community for over three years, and we've reached a high level of consensus, from our standpoint, on these areas."

The wilderness coalition is proposing that eight areas currently classed as temporary wilderness and two additional areas be turned into permanent wilderness, something only Congress can do. The total acreage of wilderness proposed is about 305,500. Also, the group has proposed a national conservation area — a less stringent designation — around the Organ Mountains that totals roughly 96,500 acres.

The wilderness designation prohibits mechanized travel in most instances.

Wilderness backers say the proposal is necessary to adequately protect sensitive areas in advance of development in the region. They argue it could boost tourism and quality of life. But ranchers say the designation, though it includes measures to grandfather in grazing, could ultimately hurt their livelihoods.

As an alternative to wilderness, ranchers have proposed creating two new federal land-use designations they say would both protect their operations and preserve open space.

Off-road vehicle user Homer Van Zandt of Las Cruces said he's in a "wait-and-see mode" with respect to the state's new congressional delegation. He pointed out that land-use issues, whether they involve wilderness or not, don't tend to be "Democrat-versus-Republican issues."

"There are people in both parties that are on both sides of the issue," he said. "I know the folks that advertise more wilderness are feeling they're in a much-stronger position in Congress, and that's probably true. But given the current state of our economy and world conditions, Congress has a whole lot more urgent things on its plate than that."

The temporary wilderness areas were studied by Congress as possibilities for wilderness. Actually creating wilderness required a second action, which Congress never took, leaving the land in a state of limbo for more than two decades. As a result, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been treating the areas in most ways as if they were wilderness.

Domenici in 2005 drafted a bill that would have created more than 200,000 acres of wilderness, and released about 65,000 acres for sale or trade. But he never introduced the bill. He has said he dropped it after strong opposition from conservationists over his proposal.

Is there room for compromise between groups?

Steinborn said opponents to wilderness "haven't shown a shred of flexibility," but it's possible.

"We'll continue to reach out and try for compromise," he said. "I think it's very fair to say that should any legislation move forward, they will absolutely be at the table."

DuBois, answering the same question, replied: "I think our group is willing to sit down with anybody and discuss our proposal and how it could be improved."

Diana M. Alba can be reached at; (575) 541-5443

On the Web

People for Preserving Our Western Heritage:

Doña Ana County Wilderness Coalition:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What to Expect When Ken Salazar Takes the Interior

Who is Ken Salazar and what kind of a DOI chief will he be?

By Courtney Lowery, 12-19-08


Okay, Ken Salazar opposed saving the black-tailed prairie dog. But give President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to head up the Interior Department a break.

After eight years of the Bush Administration’s using Interior to enrich its friends in the energy business, obliterate huge swaths of landscape – see the Upper Green River Valley—short-change us on oil and gas royalties, endanger endangered species, and gut environmental laws, Senator Salazar (D. Colo) may well be Wyoming’s last, best hope.

Indeed, no cabinet post is more critical to Wyoming than the one to which Salazar has been appointed. If approved, the 53-year-old, fifth-generation Coloradoan will be responsible for a broad portfolio of services that bears on every aspect of Wyoming’s economy and environment. Interior encompasses the Bureau of Land Management; the National Park Service; the Bureau of Reclamation (which has been involved with the management and conservation of the state’s water resources since Teddy Roosevelt was president); Minerals and Management Services (which collects and distributes the state’s energy royalties); the Bureau of Mines; the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

So who is Ken Salazar and what kind of a DOI chief will he be?

For starters, he’s an honest-to-god westerner. This, he made evident by wearing his signature ten-gallon white Stetson and a bolo tie when introduced to the press as the new Interior appointee. His deep western roots give Salazar immediate credibility with some of the state’s political and environmental leaders.

“Senator Salazar is a neighbor who knows the issues facing the west,” Republican U.S. Senator John Barrasso, Wyoming’s junior senator told WyoFile. “As members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Salazar and I came together on issues important to our states. We worked on legislation that protects western resources and to ensure that certain priorities of our states are met. I look forward to discussing Senator Salazar’s views about issues important to Wyoming during the confirmation process.”

“Senator Salazar is someone who understands the West,” adds Laurie Milford, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “He recognizes the value of a balanced energy policy, which includes responsible natural gas production on many of our public lands, while at the same time respecting local communities when they identify areas that are too special to drill.”

As one of the few people in Congress who has genuine agricultural bona fides—his older brother, Democratic Colorado Congressman John. T. Salazar, can make the same claim—Salazar is viewed as a champion of ranching and farming interests. “I’m very pleased he has a background in ranching,” says Jim Magagna, Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “On issues such as public land grazing this can be very helpful. He’s always been supportive of public land grazing. I wouldn’t anticipate our agreeing on everything, but on this issue we clearly can relate.”

Salazar was born March 2, 1955 in Alamosa, Colorado. His ancestors helped found Santa Fe, New Mexico 400 years ago, then moved north to Colorado’s San Luis Valley where they have farmed and ranched the same land ever since.

Salazar’s parents both served in World War II: his mother, Emma M., in the War Department in Washington, DC and his father Henry (Enrique) in the U.S. Army as a staff sergeant. The war over, they returned to their remote ranch— no electricity, no phone – and produced eight kids.

Reared a Roman Catholic, Salazar attended St. Francis Seminary and Centauri High School in Conejos County, graduating in 1973. He later attended Colorado College, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1977, and received his Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan’s law school in 1981. In Alamosa, he practiced water and environmental law while he and his spouse, Hope, owned and operated several small businesses, including a radio station and Dairy Queen.

Once Salazar moved into the public sector, first as chief legal counsel for Gov. Roy Romer, then as director of the Colorado Department of National Resources and later as the state attorney general, he quickly gained the reputation of being a pragmatic and effective conservationist and administrator.

“He excelled at everything he did each step along the way,” says Michael Chiropolos, Lands Program Director, Western Resource Advocates, Boulder, Colo. “I have nothing but good things to say about him.”

In one of his first acts as Colorado’s attorney general, Salazar showed he wouldn’t hesitate to shake up the status quo. In a move that may bode well for managing an Interior Department that’s been beset by corruption and ineptitude, Salazar had all the deputy attorneys general and department staff turn in letters of resignation. “Nobody actually got fired as I recall, but Salazar made everyone justify their existence and set goals for the next ten years,” Chiropolos says.

In 2004, Salazar won the Senate seat that had been vacated when Ben Nighthorse Campbell decided not to run for a third term. Entering Congress in the same freshman class as Barack Obama, he and his brother John both later campaigned hard for Obama in Colorado, a swing state, touting alternative energy development as a means to rejuvenate Colorado’s rural economies.

In the Senate, Salazar urged the Forest Service to boost spending to fight the bark beetle epidemic and was largely viewed as a supporter of wilderness protection, off road vehicle limits and strong water quality protection. His position on shale development has been proceed-with-caution, yet he also won praise from oil and mining interests for what they characterized as his reasoned, non-doctrinaire approach. Salazar has supported Wyoming-related legislation such as the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, a bill to withdraw from leasing certain federal land in the Wyoming Range and to retire other range leases.

At the same time, Salazar has been severely criticized by some environmental groups such as the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Department of the Interior desperately needs a strong, forward looking, reform-minded Secretary,” the group’s executive director Kieran Suckling said in a December 16 news release.

“Unfortunately, Ken Salazar is not that man.” Among Salazar’s failings, according to Suckling:

* fought federal action on global warming
* voted against increased fuel efficiency standards
* voted against the repeal of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil
* voted for subsidies to ranches and other users of public land
* and, yes, as Colorado AG, he threatened to sue US Fish and Wildlife when its scientists determined the black-tailed prairie dog may be endangered.

“There’s been some concern voiced that Salazar is not always making decisions based on good science,” says Western Resource Advocates’ Chiropolos. “But he’s extremely well informed and quickly gets up to speed.”

Chiropolos believes Salazar’s tenure will resemble that of former Carter Administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in that Salazar, like Babbitt, knows politics, uses horse sense and diplomacy to push his agendas, but remains a forceful, environmental advocate.

“Obviously, Salazar can’t please all environmental interests, but you’ve got to remember that Babbitt was met with bullhorns when he came through Boulder,” says Chiropolos. And, of course, Babbitt approaches the gold standard in terms of evaluating interior secretaries over the past few decades. The low point probably came under the infamous James Watt, a Wyomingite who served during the Reagan administration from 1981-83.

With Salazar adapting what Chiropolos calls “the Babbitt game plan,” Wyoming environmentalists are hopeful.

“In Colorado, Senator Salazar supports protection of the Roan Plateau and has worked hard to establish the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area and Wilderness,” says Laurie Milford of the Outdoor Council. “We hope these positions indicate that Secretary Salazar will help us protect equally special places in Wyoming, like Adobe Town, the Jack Morrow Hills, and the Wyoming Range where the BLM manages the minerals.”

“He’s a man who understands what ‘balance’ means between natural gas development and safeguarding the Valley’s abundant wildlife and air and water resources and protecting local communities.,” says Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Coalition. “I’ve got great hope.”

Baker concedes that, unfortunately, hope and balance may never be enough to restore the Pinedale region which is currently beset by rapidly deteriorating air quality, ground water contamination, huge wildlife losses and vast tracts of no-longer- useable land – all the result of rampant natural gas exploitation. “So much egregious stuff has been going on around here for the past eight years that much of the damage can’t be reversed,” says Baker.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ranchers Taking A Stand In Agustin Plains Water Grab

By John Larson for Mountain Mail

SOCORRO, New Mexico (STPNS) -- A group of New Mexico ranchers is spearheading an effort to convince the state Legislature to change the regulations governing the jurisdiction of the Office of the State Engineer.

At the Joint Stockman’s Convention last weekend in Albuquerque, two resolutions were passed concerning the attempt by San Agustin Ranch LLC, a New York firm owned by Italian businessman Bruno Modena, to pump the San Agustin aquifer dry in order to sell water back to state entities.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said the resolutions were voted on by representatives from the cattle growers, wool growers, Cowbelles, dairy farmers and New Mexico Federal Lands Council.

“This is where cattle growers develop their policies for the coming year,” Cowan said. “This is traditionally the largest agricultural gathering in the state. There were about 500 attendees from all over New Mexico and a few legislators.”

She said the cattle growers association alone boasts about 1,500 members.

“We’re concerned about the lack of authority the Office of the State Engineer has over deep wells,” Cowan said. “As it stands now, the drilling of deep water wells of non-potable water greater than 2,500 feet, exclusive of produced water, is presently outside the Office of the State Engineer’s jurisdiction. The San Agustin Ranch application is for 3,000 feet.”

She said the company amended its application to take it out of the State Engineer’s purview.

The company’s original application was to receive permission to “divert and consumptively use 54,000 acre-feet, or 17 billion gallons, of water yearly for domestic, livestock, irrigation, municipal, industrial and commercial uses to include providing water to the state of New Mexico to augment its capacity to meet deliveries to the state of Texas at Elephant Butte dam and offsetting effects of ground water pumping on the Rio Grande in lieu of retirement of agriculture via a pipeline to the Rio Grande.”

The original plan was to drill 37 wells with 20-inch casings about 2,000 feet deep within the exterior boundaries of Catron County, Socorro County and Augustin Plains Ranch.

The amended application requests deeper wells, 3,000 feet, and takes in a wider area that would be affected.

Cowan said the Cattle Growers resolution supports any efforts of the State Engineer to have jurisdiction over deep-water aquifers.

The second resolution passed last weekend is intended to underscore objections by the Cattle Growers and 500 residents of Catron and Socorro counties to the proposal by San Augustin Ranch LLC to drill the wells.

“We intend to convince the legislators that that this drilling effort will pose a harm to the public welfare of Catron County, as well as the public outside of Catron County and within the San Agustin Basin,” Cowan said. “Any proposed plan to extract such large volumes of water per annum will deplete the San Agustin Basin with no means of replenishing the basin once the water is gone.”

San Augustin Ranch is trying to convince officials that the plan would be in the state’s best interest. It promises to “provide water by pipeline to supplement or offset the effects of existing uses and for new uses” for central and northern New Mexico communities, including Albuquerque and Santa Fe, “in order to reduce the current stress on the water supply of the Rio Grande Basin,” according to the amended application.

“The state is allowing the water go to whoever’s got the money,” Cowan said.

Anita Hand of the San Agustin Water Coalition, based in Datil, said the San Augustin Ranch is speculating on the price of water.

“They have never actually come out here looking at the property. They’re water speculators and nothing more. They’re looking for a profit,” she said.

“If they start pumping that water, our wells are going to start drying up,” Hand said. “Most of our wells out here are two-to-three hundred feet deep and they’re wanting to go 3,000 feet deep.”

Hand said the water depletion would not only hurt the agricultural economy of the area, but also the wildlife.

“Our ranchers are providing water for wildlife,” she said. “With no water wildlife will not stay around.”

Hand said the water coalition urges all residents of the area to contact as many state legislators as possible.

“It looks like right now a big company can come in and just take the water without permission,” she said.” We have to make sure people are aware of this.”

© 2008 Mountain Mail Socorro, New Mexico. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Secretary Formally Designates Bureau of Land Management Lands as the National System of Public Lands

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has signed a Secretarial Order to officially designate the 258 million acres of lands managed for multiple-use by the Department’s Bureau of Land Management as the National System of Public Lands.

“These lands constitute an invaluable recreational, cultural, economic, and environmental legacy for the nation,” Kempthorne said. “And yet, those who own these lands – the American people – remain largely unaware of their critical importance to our quality of life, their value to present and future generations, or even the purpose for which these lands are preserved in public ownership.”

As the principal steward of the public lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is directed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 to manage the public lands for multiple-use, including recreation, conservation, wildlife habitat and economic activities, such as livestock grazing, energy and mineral production and the development of timber and forest products.

“It’s time these great lands and resources, whose historical roots date back to the earliest days of our nation, are given their due by recognizing them officially,” BLM Director James Caswell said. “This official designation will ultimately make it easier for the public to identify these lands and more readily understand the multiple-use mission that Congress has given to the BLM.”

While providing BLM-managed lands an official designation confers no change in land status, Caswell said that it will underscore several principles that are important to the stewardship of these lands.

“Calling these lands the National System of Public Lands implies that all of our lands and resources are linked in some capacity,” Caswell said. “This linkage is at the heart of our landscape approach to land management.”

He also said that the designation will emphasize the interconnectedness and interdependence of the public lands and all who benefit from them; better convey the diversity of interests and values associated with the public lands and how these are served through balanced, comprehensive, management; and increase the critical importance of enlightened citizen stewardship to the preservation of these lands and to the success of BLM’s work on behalf of the American people.

Caswell said that the BLM will minimize any costs associated with the designation by institutionalizing it over time and incorporating the identity in publications, signage and other materials in the normal course of renewing and updating such materials.

The BLM manages more land – 258 million acres – than any other Federal agency. Most of this public land is located in 12 Western States, including Alaska. The Bureau, with a budget of about $1 billion, also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation. The BLM’s multiple-use mission is to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. The Bureau accomplishes this by managing such activities as outdoor recreation, livestock grazing, mineral development, and energy production, and by conserving natural, historical, cultural, and other resources on public lands.

— DOI —

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bighorn Sheep Rule Stirs Debate in West

A new policy issued by the Bush administration for managing fragile populations of bighorn sheep has angered Western environmentalists, hunters and state wildlife managers, who claim it is a move by the outgoing administration to reshape the Western landscape in favor of industry.

A new federal policy regulating how bighorn sheep are transported across state lines has drawn criticism from state officials and environmentalists in the West. They say it threatens efforts to restore the wild sheep.

Federal officials say the policy -- set out in a Memorandum of Understanding with the Forest Service -- is intended to protect bighorns from disease. But critics say it threatens their decadeslong effort to restore the wild sheep population from near-extinction.

Mark Rey, undersecretary for natural resources with the Department of Agriculture, who helped write the bighorn policy, dismissed the complaints. Officials from several Western states have sent him letters denouncing the policy as an illegal usurpation of state authority. Mr. Rey is reviewing the comments but said he sees no reason to change course.

The new policy requires that all wild bighorn be quarantined and tested for disease by federal labs before they can be moved across state lines by relocation programs designed to protect their populations. Mr. Rey says the current protocol, which leaves testing up to the states, is "hit or miss" and thus not good for the bighorn. "If everything is fine," he said, "why do we see diseases cropping up hither, thither and yon?"

But state officials worry the new policy could slow their efforts to protect the sheep. The crux of the problem, they say, is that domestic sheep too often intrude on bighorn territory -- leading to encounters that, for reasons not fully understood, are often fatal to the wild sheep.

State wildlife workers have tried to protect bighorns by relocating them as needed. They believe holding them in quarantine while federal labs perform blood analysis would slow the process and endanger the animals' health. Wild sheep get stressed easily in captivity.

"It's absolutely unworkable," said Dale Toweill, the wildlife coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The federal policy was welcomed by the ranching industry, which raises hundreds of thousands of domestic sheep for wool and meat.

Ranchers hope a new policy will slow efforts to move bighorn sheep across habitats, leaving more land open for domestic producers.

Many ranching families have grazed their sheep on federal lands for generations. In recent years, however, the U.S. Forest Service has begun to revoke some of these grazing permits, out of fear the domestic sheep transmit fatal diseases to wild bighorn. Ranchers complain that there is no scientific proof their sheep are killing the bighorn. They hope the new policy will slow efforts to move wild sheep across habitats, leaving more land open for domestic producers.

"It's finally recognizing the other side," said Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association. "We think it'll help."

The sheep memo follows several decisions that have angered environmental interests in the West.

Those include regulations paving the way for oil-shale exploration and increased oil and gas leasing near national parks. Some of the decisions could be reversed by the incoming Obama administration. But Mr. Rey and his critics said they don't believe sheep-testing protocols would be a priority.

The Department of Agriculture hasn't written the bighorn-testing protocol, and Mr. Rey said all decisions, including the length of any quarantine, will be open to public comment.

"This is going to be done by people with Ph.D.s in veterinary science," Mr. Rey said. "I don't see it rising to the level of political involvement."

Write to Stephanie Simon at

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lesser prairie chicken moves up on ESA list

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The status of a bird found in a handful of Western and Midwestern states has become more dire due to the loss of its native prairie habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday announced a change in the listing priority of the lesser prairie chicken with the release of the agency's annual review of candidates for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The lesser prairie chicken, a stocky ground-dwelling bird found in parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, has been on the candidate list for more than a decade. The Fish and Wildlife Service said new information prompted raising the bird's priority number from 8 to 2, one of the most urgent categories.

"It shows that it deserves to be looked at for Endangered Species Act protection sooner than the others," said Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman with the agency's Southwest Region.

Conservation groups have been pushing the federal agency to grant the lesser prairie chicken protection under the ESA for years, saying the bird has declined by more than 90 percent over the past century and is facing threats that include energy development, climate change and the loss of habitat.

Despite its status as a candidate, Slown said the lesser prairie chicken is not on the agency's work plan for this fiscal year. That means it could be next September before the agency considers doing a review to determine whether to list the bird.

The Fish and Wildlife Service along with the Bureau of Land Management, an oil and gas company and a New Mexico rancher signed conservation agreements aimed at protecting the lesser prairie chicken during a ceremony this week in Albuquerque.

Those who participate in the program voluntarily agree to conservation measures that protect and restore habitat for the bird in southeast New Mexico. In return, if the chicken is given protection under the ESA, landowners are assured they will not be required to do more than they have pledged through the conservation program.

Slown said the agency hopes more landowners and companies will join the program, resulting in a wider range of the chicken's habitat being protected.

Conservationists have been crying foul this week, saying the agreements are simply a means to avoid listing a species that clearly needs more protection to ensure its survival.

"Why is the Fish and Wildlife Service spending staff time and resources shuffling paper ... rather than proposing the species for listing?" asked Nicole Rosmarino of the Western conservation group WildEarth Guardians.

Rosmarino said the bird must be listed, "not papered over with these very uncertain conservation agreements."

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, lesser prairie chickens in the early 20th century were common throughout their five-state range. By the 1930s, cultivation, grazing and drought started to cause the species to disappear from areas where it had been abundant.

Along with the lesser prairie chicken, 10 other species' priority numbers changed during this year's candidate review. The agency said four species are now listed as higher priorities and seven were lowered.

Two species — the Ogden mountainsnail, a mollusk species found in Utah, and the Florida indigo, a plant species native to tropical regions — were removed from the list. One was added — the Gierisch mallow, a plant species found in Arizona and Utah.

The agency now recognizes 251 species as candidates for ESA protection.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Environmentalists want new wolf recovery plan

Environmentalists say the federal government's current plan for re-establishing the Mexican gray wolf in the wild is outdated and legally invalid, and petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday to revise it.

"We're managing a very imperiled population of wolves based on planning that's over 20 years old and didn't imagine actual recovery goals — the threshold at which we can say we've done enough and we can take the animal off the (endangered species) list," said Rob Edward, director of carnivore recovery for WildEarth Guardians in Denver.

The current recovery plan was completed in 1982 — 16 years before any wolves were released into the wild in the Southwest. It focused heavily on captive breeding and said little about how to manage wolves in the wild or the process of developing a viable wild population, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in Pinos Altos.

The center, WildEarth Guardians and the Rewilding Institute petitioned Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall for clear goals and deadlines for delisting the species with attention to the wolves' genetic pool.

Amendments to the Endangered Species Act in 1988 established standards for recovery plans that were not met in the 1982 Mexican wolf plan, the groups said.

Edward said the plan should be redone before the government revises policies governing the reintroduction program.

"It's a fool's errand to base new policies on a plan that has been gathering dust for over two decades," he said.

Fish and Wildlife also wants to redo the recovery plan, said Elizabeth Slown, spokeswoman for the agency's Albuquerque regional office. But, she said, that's being held up by competing judges' orders over the larger gray wolf species elsewhere in the nation.

"Those need to be sorted out a little more carefully before we take up the recovery plan again," she said. She had no idea when that can be done.

The Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was exterminated in the wild in the Southwest by the 1930s.

In March 1998, the government began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico border in a 4 million acre-plus territory interspersed with forests, private land and towns.

The wolves in Arizona and New Mexico have been designated as a "nonessential, experimental population." That gives Fish and Wildlife greater flexibility to manage them under the Endangered Species Act and allows permanent removal — by capturing or killing a wolf — after three confirmed livestock kills in a year.

The Center for Biological Diversity has sued Fish and Wildlife in the past over the wolves' management, contending orders to permanently remove or kill individual animals are compromising the species' genetic diversity.

Wednesday's petition said the lack of an adequate recovery plan and the "unsustainable rate" of removing wolves from the wild stand in the way of recovery.
The reintroduction program had predicted a self-sustaining wild population of 100 wolves by now, but there were 52 as of the last official count in January — seven fewer than in the previous year. Fish and Wildlife, which conducts one count of wild wolves each year, said the number has fluctuated since with deaths, births and removals.

The petitioners said the Mexican gray wolf is not on a trajectory toward recovery. The population has fallen far short of reintroduction goals, said Dave Parsons, former Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife and now carnivore conservation biologist for The Rewilding Institute.

"We could lose the lobo in the wild for a second time if my former agency doesn't get serious about recovery," he said.
States blast feds' sheep rule

The Bush administration is attempting to usurp wildlife management authority from Western states through an end-of-term, under-the-radar move on bighorn sheep, state officials and wildlife advocates charge.

Without consulting or even notifying any state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have drafted an agreement that would, in effect, take jurisdiction over the transplantation of bighorn sheep on national forests.

That's according to documents provided to the Star-Tribune by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the state of Wyoming.

Although the federal action was drafted sometime in September, regional wildlife agencies didn't find out about it until the third week in November, state officials said.

According to the written agreement itself, it was created out of concern for the declining bighorn sheep population in the West. But critics say the real reason for the move is to protect domestic sheep producers, at the expense of bighorns.

Representatives of the Forest Service declined to talk on the record for this story. A spokesman for the agency in Washington, D.C., last week referred the Star-Tribune to a regional office, which then referred it back to the D.C. office. Multiple phone calls to the agency last week and on Monday were not returned.

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies is a group of 23 state and provincial wildlife management departments from the American West and Canada. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is a member.

This association, along with the state of Wyoming individually, responded sharply to the drafted agreement on Monday, because it would require that all wild sheep intended for reintroduction to national forests be tested for diseases by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, among other things.

Reintroduction of bighorns to national forests would also require approval by the Forest Service.

Scathing rebuke

In a letter sent Monday to USDA Undersecretaries Mark Rey and Bruce Knight, the wildlife agencies' association condemned the agreement for being "drafted without input from any state wildlife agency, whose statutory authority to manage resident wildlife is clearly established."

As written, the action "contravenes existing law and policy, is unworkable in day-to-day management of the states' wildlife resources and produces a host of undesirable (and perhaps unintended) consequences," the letter contends.

Member agencies of the group know of no law or regulation providing the Forest Service with the authority to require disease testing of bighorn sheep or any other native resident wildlife, the group argues.

"States have long been acknowledged as having both ownership and management authority of resident wildlife, including its capture and translocation. The general health monitoring and management of bighorn sheep is the responsibility of state wildlife agencies, except for those bighorn sheep populations protected under the Endangered Species Act, and even then, federal authority lies with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not USDA."

APHIS, the letter continues, also has no jurisdiction over the movements of wild sheep.

"Collectively, we view this (action) as an attempt to usurp state wildlife agency jurisdiction and authority, and we will actively challenge that interference, if deemed necessary," the signatories conclude.

The federal move was also slammed in a separate letter sent to the same undersecretaries from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, signed by the agency's director and the state veterinarian.

"Neither in enabling legislation nor elsewhere in the United States Code is (the U.S. Forest Service) granted explicit authority to supplant or supersede state wildlife management authority on USFS lands," the letter asserts. "Under the auspices of disease control, USFS attempts to bestow through (this interagency agreement) preemptive wildlife management authority over the State where it legally does not exist."

Domestic vs. wild

Bighorn sheep advocates also expressed outrage over the action, citing it as another example of wild sheep losing out to domestic sheep.

"It is another attempt by Mark Rey to run roughshod over state management," said Steve Torbit, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation. "It's totally out of balance, the way this is being handled. The livestock bring the diseases in, and then wildlife has to be eliminated in deference to livestock."

Torbit called the move a "power play" by commodity producers, whom the Bush administration has habitually favored in its public land management.

"This is an insult to state authority. It's an insult to wildlife management," Torbit said.

Gray Thornton, president of the Cody-based Wild Sheep Foundation, said his group is "perplexed" by this move by the outgoing administration.

"In many ways it's federal dominance over what is a state resource. It's meddling inappropriately in state sovereignty," Thornton said. "Mr. Rey recognizes the disease risk of domestic contact with wild sheep, but the proposed (action) and other actions appear to place the blame on a valuable public wildlife resource -- wild sheep -- and not on what most agree is the real issue: domestic sheep grazing in historical and occupied wild sheep habitat."

The real problem at hand is that wild sheep become infected by diseases from domestic sheep, Thornton said, and in this regard, Rey is directing his energies toward the "wrong vector."

The federal move was ultimately made to address wild sheep-domestic sheep conflicts in Idaho, not in Wyoming, Thornton said. The issue of where it is appropriate to have bighorns and domestic sheep has been at the center of ongoing controversy and legal battles in Idaho in recent years.

Wyoming developed a successful bighorn sheep working group years ago, Thornton said, which included all interested parties, including domestic sheep grazers, wildlife managers and wild sheep advocates.

Nonetheless, the federal action still affects Wyoming because it takes some management authority away from the state, even though the state is better equipped to manage bighorns and is more knowledgeable about all of the issues related to wild and domestic sheep, he said.

Eric Keszler, spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the Cowboy State's success in managing wild sheep should be acknowledged by the federal agencies, and the state should be left alone when it comes to management decisions about bighorns.

"Additional actions by the federal government are not something that is needed here," Keszler said. "We work very well with (agricultural) producers to avoid conflicts."

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, agreed that Wyoming has done a good job of addressing concerns about contact between domestic sheep and wild sheep.

"It's all arisen out of a pretty major dispute over in Idaho on the Payette National Forest," Magagna said. "We're fortunate in Wyoming that a number of years ago we formed a bighorn sheep working group and we developed a set of protocols to govern bighorn sheep and domestic sheep, and it has worked pretty well."

In their letter to the Bush administration, Game and Fish Department Director Steve Ferrell and State Veterinarian Walter Cook urged the federal government to continue to defer to the state on wildlife management decisions, as required by law.

"The State of Wyoming has a long-standing claim to primary jurisdiction over wildlife management throughout the State, including USFS lands within its borders," the signatories wrote. "The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that States possess broad trustee and police powers over wildlife within their jurisdictions and hold primary jurisdiction over the management of fish and wildlife on federal lands unless Congress explicitly declares otherwise."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ranchers using plan to help endangered species

Federal officials have approved a habitat conservation plan that will let a group of southwestern ranchers improve and maintain their lands while helping several species considered threatened or endangered.

The plan will enable ranchers affiliated with the Malpai Borderlands Group in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico to continue using their lands for cattle-raising activities while providing long-range benefit to plant, fish and animal species that are threatened or endangered.

And it will let them address endangered species issues in a more efficient way than on a project-by-project basis, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokesman Jeff Humphrey.

``It's so hard not to be reactive when you're a landowner when it involves endangered species,'' said Bill McDonald, chairman of the Malpai group, which includes more than 20 of about 30 ranching families spread across 828,000 acres in the two states.

``You seem to have to be on the defensive. It's almost as if you're breathing, you're doing something wrong. And probably, if you have an endangered species on your property, you're doing something right.''

Because members of the group wanted to be more proactive, they began working about five years ago to develop a habitat conservation plan and get Fish and Wildlife approval.

``It's taken several years to get this thing done, but we think we have something now that will stand up for a long time,'' McDonald said. ``Most of the species we have listed in the plan are not listed (as endangered) yet; they're species of concern. But they could be listed in the future.''.

He added: ``We're simply trying to get a handle on what we can do and how we can do it on these ranches so that they can remain viable livelihoods but not jeopardize the species that are either here or could come here.''

Their plan, finally approved in October, is designed to let ranchers improve grasslands and watersheds and enable them to manage their ranching functions. Fish and Wildlife has issued a permit that allows Malpai members to ``take,'' or kill, a threatened or endangered species if it is incidental to their lawful operations and if the taking will not jeopardize the population's survival.

Most of the actions spelled out in the plan are routine rancher activities, such as prescribed burns to rid grasslands of invasive brush, clearing an area for a fence or pipeline or cleaning out a stock tank filled with sediment or silt, but which also may serve as habitat for an endangered species such as the Chiricahua leopard frog.

``The Malpai Borderlands habitat conservation plan is unique in that they're trying to maintain the habitats that they have both for the species and their working animals,'' said Marty Tuegel (TEE-gull), a Fish and Wildlife scientist.

``Their whole program is designed on trying to heal the scars of the past.''

And they're trying to accomplish that by undertaking restoration through such actions as fire to kill invasive trees and shrubs, which also is helpful for watersheds, said Peter Warren, senior field representative for the Nature Conservancy.

``They're trying to keep the landscape open and wild through progressive land management and conservation,'' he said.

McDonald said he hopes the plan works as intended and that other people will follow the example. ``It will take a lot of controversy out of the endangered species issue,'' he said.

Other threatened and endangered species in the Malpai Borderlands include four fish: the Yaqui topminnow, Yaqui chub, beautiful shiner and the Yaqui catfish; the Huachuca water umbel, an aquatic plant; the New Mexico ridge-nosed rattlesnake, northern Aplomado falcon and the Mexican spotted owl.

The private, nonprofit Malpai group organized in 1994, with its member ranchers having goals of keeping their lands from being subdivided and developed, and of maintaining the productivity of the grasslands.

They've used conservation easements, a legal instrument to keep the lands open and undeveloped in perpetuity. Warren said about 12 of the ranches in the area have executed conservation easement agreements.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Settlement Reached In Lawsuit Over Lynx
Fish, Wildlife Service Will Decide If Lynx Should Be Protected In N.M.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide in two weeks whether to study if the Canada lynx should be protected in New Mexico under the Endangered Species Act.

The Dec. 15 deadline was set in a settlement filed Monday in a lawsuit the Western Environmental Law Center filed in April on behalf of conservation groups to force the federal agency to act on their petition to protect the lynx in New Mexico.

Lynx have been reintroduced in southern Colorado, and some have wandered south into New Mexico. Although the federal government lists the elusive, furry cats as threatened in 14 states, including Colorado, they have no federal protection in New Mexico.

"We think it's very important that the species be listed, given that it's traveling into northern New Mexico," said Rob Edward of WildEarth Guardians' Denver office, who said the settlement offers hope for the lynx in the Southwest.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., complained that Fish and Wildlife failed to act on the organizations' August 2007 petition within 90 days as required by the Endangered Species Act. The law gives the agency that time to decide whether a petition provides sufficient information for the agency to then determine whether a listing may be warranted.

If Fish and Wildlife decides a study of the lynx is warranted, the agency will do a yearlong study aimed toward determining whether to list the animal or not.

The settlement "means we're no longer in legal limbo, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to this mandated first step, and at least we will have a decision from them whether they will take the next step toward listing," Edward said.

If the agency decides a study is not warranted, the conservation groups will have to reassess, he said. "We haven't made any firm commitment one way or the other," he said.

WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Native Ecosystems, Born Free USA, Animal Protection of New Mexico and Carson Forest Watch petitioned to extend protection to the lynx in New Mexico.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife, which has released more than 200 lynx in Colorado since 1999, tracked about 60 of the animals into New Mexico's Taos, Rio Arriba and San Juan counties between 1999 and 2006, the lawsuit said. The conservation groups said at least 14 of those animals have been killed.

"It's time to give lynx in New Mexico the same protections that they are afforded in Colorado and other parts of the range," said Josh Pollack, executive director of the Center for Native Ecosystems. "We can't be good stewards of these rare cats if we don't legally protect them wherever they roam."