This week, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined committee chairman John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to convene a legislative hearing on S. 2891, Udall's Tribal Wildlife Corridors Act of 2019, which he introduced last November with U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). The Tribal Wildlife Corridors Act seeks to facilitate Tribal implementation of wildlife corridors on Indian lands and adjacent public lands to help wildlife overcome landscape fragmentation caused by human-made barriers. The legislation is written in recognition of the importance and respect accorded to fish and wildlife by Native American people.
"Establishing fish and wildlife migration corridors is one of the most effective tools we have to maintain fish, wildlife, and plant species at a time when ecosystems are under threat like never before. My bill, S. 2891, encourages Tribes to identify, use and expand wildlife migration corridors and habitat on Tribal lands and in their communities," said Udall in his opening statement.
Udall's bill builds on the innovation of his home state of New Mexico, which last year became one of the first states in the nation to enact comprehensive legislation to require the State to develop a Wildlife Corridors Action Plan to identify wildlife corridors
In 2018, the Secretary of the Interior issued an order that directs Interior bureaus to partner with select Western states to conserve and improve the quality of western big game migration corridors and winter range on federal lands. However, the order did not provide equivalent benefits to Tribes and stopped short of covering native species that do not constitute big game species.
As place-based peoples, Tribal nations maintain close traditional relationships with the fish, wildlife, and plants native to their lands. In his testimony, Santa Ana Pueblo Governor Lawrence Montoya noted, "the potential elimination of traditionally-important wildlife on our land would directly threaten our ability to engage in important religious ceremonies that ensure the persistence of our cultural identity, now, and deep into the future."
During his questioning, Udall asked Montoya to examine the benefits of wildlife corridors from a public health and safety perspective, citing New Mexico's Department of Transportation reporting of 15,213 animal-vehicle collisions between 2001 and 2016.
In response, Montoya mentioned the dangers of wildlife crossing the two-mile stretch of interstate that crosses his Pueblo's reservation, especially in the case of nocturnal animals.
"Wildlife really don't know boundaries. They're not going to change their minds in terms of where they're going to go, and that's the reason why we have fatalities with those large game animals," said Montoya.
Udall then questioned U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Stephen Guertin: "Does the Fish and Wildlife Service support broadening the use of wildlife corridors beyond the beneficiaries mentioned in the Secretarial Order [which aimed to improve wildlife corridor and habitat connectivity for big game species on federal lands], whether through more direct engagement with Tribes to establish wildlife corridors on Tribal lands or expanding the application beyond big-game species?"
"Yes, Senator, we're very interested in working with the committee as you frame up the final language for the bill. The secretary's order really builds on our larger ongoing work. The service's interest is to work with the committee as you step down into the operational details of making [the bill] go live," responded Guertin.