Smiling broadly and gesturing overhead, Assistant U.S. House Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) told the audience about the flight he'd taken over the Río Grande del Norte National Monument: "I got a bird's eye view from above and could easily see how all the communities are connected. We're family."
It turned out that his opening remarks would set the theme for the third annual Upper Río Grande Wildlife Corridors Summit, which took place Tuesday (Aug. 20), at Sagebrush Inn and Suites in Taos.
Luján also expressed concerns about the present administration in Washington, especially its latest effort to undermine the Endangered Species Act. That act was passed in 1973 to provide a framework to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species.
"We can come together," he said. "We can reverse this."
Organized by the National Wildlife Federation on behalf of the Upper Río Grande Wildlife Initiative, the all-day conference was a mosaic of traditional peoples and cultures from New Mexico and southern Colorado together with a broad spectrum of representatives from federal and state agencies, tribal entities, private landowners and conservation groups.
Upward of 200 people attended. And when Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) was introduced as a 35th-generation New Mexican, there was a noticeable gasp from the whole room that seemed to say: "Wow. Thirty-five generations."
Haaland, who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and has Jemez Pueblo heritage, reminded the audience that "it is of the utmost importance that we come together to protect our ecosystems and our wildlife."
She thanked Taos Pueblo for its leadership and mentioned that 2020 will be the 50th year anniversary of the return of its sacred Blue Lake.
The purpose of the summit was to promote collaboration between local, state, federal and tribal agencies with the aim of protecting wildlife corridors in southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. Throughout the day, six panels of experts on topics that ranged from traditional land use to conservation on tribal land shared their assessments of the need for wildlife corridors.
Many pointed out that elk, bighorn sheep, deer, pronghorn, black bears and cougars move incredible distances, unmindful of boundaries between states or between state, federal or tribal land.
Stewart Liley of New Mexico Department of Game and Fish talked about the importance of "filling the knowledge gaps" regarding how wildlife move across the landscape.
Jim Hirsch of New Mexico Department of Transportation explained the state's wildlife-vehicle collision mitigation program. "Typically, we put up eight-foot-high fencing and then direct wildlife below, usually through a drainage structure."
He said the department has completed 10 mitigation projects since 2004. "But they're expensive," he added. One of the next projects will be along Interstate 25 near Ratón.
The Wildlife Corridors Act, signed into law in New Mexico last April, directs DOT and New Mexico Game and Fish to identify highway segments that pose a risk both to the public and wildlife and develop a Wildlife Corridors Action Plan.
DOT reported 1,228 animal-vehicle collisions in 2013, a figure that jumped 33 percent by 2016.
Structures like animal underpasses and overpasses will also be considered. According to information compiled by the initiative, underpasses helped reduce elk collisions in Arizona by 90 percent.
Talisa Puentes from Taos Pueblo talked about bighorn sheep migration through Tract A, a section of Pueblo land that straddles State Road 64. "We've built a high fence on both sides of the road and culverts going underneath the highway," she said. "We've been observing the habits, movements and lifestyles of this herd."
Aran Johnson, who has been a wildlife biologist for the Southern Ute Tribe since 2003, emphasized that even though hunters cannot access tribal lands, they benefit from the protections offered big game species on tribal lands.
"You can't talk about wildlife movement without bringing tribes into the conversation," he said.
Taos County joins several other New Mexican counties and municipalities, including the town of Taos, that have unanimously supported wildlife corridors in the Upper Río Grande. The resolution also urges Congress to pass the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019 that would serve to protect wildlife corridors nationally.
HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors) Advisory Board Member and Chairman Rock Ulibarri attended and spoke at the meeting in support of the resolution.
According to a press release, Ulibarri said, "I have witnessed the overwhelming support from members of the community and county commissioners who believe in the preservation of our cultural traditions and our connection to the land. It is absolutely critical to include all of the municipalities that have a stake in the future and health of our wildlife and forests as we work together to tell our Congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., as well as our forest planners that wildlife migration corridors are strongly supported at the local level."
What's next for the Upper Río Grande Wildlife Initiative? Mary Jo Brooks of the National Wildlife Federation released this statement: "The initiative has created a website ( connectedcorridors.com) with information about migration corridors, the wildlife that depend on them, the traditional communities around them, the new forest plans and ways to get involved in corridor conservation."