Following the release of an investigation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program by the Department of Interior’s inspector general — a report which Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce called “damning” — Pearce submitted an amendment, or rider, to the House Interior and Environment appropriation bill that would strip federal funding from the program.
The bill is to fund the many agencies housed under the Department of the Interior umbrella, many of which impact life here in New Mexico — the National Park Service, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, and the Bureau of Land Management among them. And, of course, Fish and Wildlife.
To the bill, which includes billions of dollars appropriated to Fish and Wildlife, Pearce added the following amendment:
“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to treat the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) as an endangered species or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 or to implement a recovery plan for such species that applies in any area outside the historic range of such species.”
The bill successfully passed the House of Representatives. Pearce — who does not sit on the House Appropriations Committee — made one of 101 amendments to the original bill.
According to a press release from Pearce’s office, the amendment “effectively delists the Mexican wolf from the Endangered Species Act and will allow the states to manage the wolf recovery independently.”
Based partly on the outcome of the report by the Inspector General’s Office, which found evidence of mismanagement in the program — particularly of “nuisance wolves” — Pearce believes the state should manage any reintroduction, rather than the federal agency.
Fish and Wildlife “has consistently proven its inability to manage the Mexican wolf program in New Mexico,” Pearce was quoted as saying in the release. “This is clear in the recent Inspector General Report substantiating claims from Catron County that those at the top levels of the program at [Fish and Wildlife] tolerated a culture of lies, falsification, mismanagement, and manipulation of scientific data, ultimately at the cost of public trust and species recovery. I am pleased that the House passed this amendment, it is time to give this program back to the states.”
Pearce’s press secretary, Megan Wells, told the Daily Press that the state control of the project Pearce envisions will be however the state “sees fit,” and does not specify assignment to any existing agency, like New Mexico Game and Fish, which is closely tied — but often at odds — with federal Fish and Wildlife on the reintroduction.
Game and Fish is involved in a lawsuit with Fish and Wildlife over the reintroduction, following Fish and Wildlife’s continued release of Mexican gray wolves despite a Game and Fish Commission’s refusal to permit further releases.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity — whose organization also recently sued Fish and Wildlife to secure a deadline for a revised recovery plan — voiced concerns over the nature of the rider as well as confusion over some of its language.
“This is a radical change in policy, but it is not going through all the debate a radical change in policy usually goes through before it is passed,” Robinson said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall has similar feelings on the use of such riders.
“He believes that annual appropriations bills are not the right way to make significant environmental policy decisions — which should be based on science and involve significant public input,” Udall’s communications director, Jennifer Talhelm, said in a statement. “Senator Udall ?opposes the riders, which would also be opposed by the president. He fought to strike all riders when the Senate committee considered the Interior appropriations bill, including riders to gut the Endangered Species Act.”
Udall is the leading Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
Robinson is concerned that Pearce’s proposal will get set aside as insignificant by the majority of Americans and passed, potentially even leading to the extinction of the Mexican gray wolf in the United States.
Grant County Farm Bureau President Stewart Rooks supported Pearce’s vision of a state-run recovery plan, if any. The Farm Bureau and members of the agricultural community in general have been largely against the wolf’s recovery.
“As far as Farm Bureau stands, we’re very concerned. Farm Bureau has not been in favor of wolf reintroduction,” Rooks said. “But now we’ve found out that the people in charge of the wolf here were falsifying reports on dangerous wolves and livestock predations. It is real unfortunate that they weren’t honest with the taxpayers.”
He said perhaps the state’s handling of the wolf would align more to the agricultural community’s way of thinking.
“I would be in favor of shifting the wolf program to the state,” Rooks continued. “If we have New Mexico people running things, they’ll be more tuned in with local people, the ranchers and farmers.”
The Mexican gray wolf rider wasn’t Pearce’s only move that would affect endangered species programs. Another seeks to “protect ranchers’ water rights” by also keeping funds from being used to treat the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species. The goal there is to stop the U.S. Forest Service from building fences and otherwise restricting access to what Pearce called “privately held water rights,” moves which he said threaten ranchers’ livelihoods.
Overall, Pearce applauded the bill, especially with his amendments.
The appropriations bill also includes measures to block the Waters of the United States rule put forth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, which defined the scope of water protected by the Clean Water Act. Pearce said this was the Obama administration’s attempt to “take control of ditches and farm ponds.”
Rooks agreed with that point as well. “If someone has a piece of property where one of these drainages is, if you were going to do anything to disturb it, you can be fined,” he said. “This is a detriment to not only agriculture producers but any private property owner.”
The bill also contains language that, if adopted, would block the Bureau of Land Management from limiting hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) and venting or flaring of natural gas.
According to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations website, the Senate’s Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies has been working on their own version of the 2017 bill but it has not gone to the Senate floor.