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June 2024

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Conservation Wins and a Surging Bird Flu

In a major win for conservationists, the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. ruled against the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and upheld the endangered status of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

Originally declared endangered in 1995, the tiny, olive-gray bird is making a steady comeback thanks to continued efforts by conservation groups to prevent the overturning of its protections. Its current population is estimated to be around 2,500 to 3,000, compared to just 550 when they were first listed as endangered. The Pacific Legal Foundation, representing the Cattle Growers Association, argued that the birds inhabiting their ranch lands are not a valid subspecies of the flycatcher, and thus are not deserving of protections. The Center For Biological Diversity, representing Maricopa Audubon Society, argued that ornithologists had repeatedly reaffirmed the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher since 1948, and that cattle grazing was a primary contributing factor to the destruction of its habitat.

Judge Ana C. Reyes dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning the case may not be filed again on similar grounds. Charles Babbitt, conservation chair of Maricopa Audubon Society praised the judge’s decision and offered no sympathy to ranchers, saying that “protection is problematic for ranchers whose unsustainable business model requires that their cows continue to destroy the country’s few surviving desert riparian areas.” In a statement to Taos News, Thomas Paterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle growers Association, said the decision was “essentially allowing Fish and Wildlife to make an unchecked policy choice that negatively impacts the lives of ordinary Americans.”

This year’s state legislative session netted $300 million in funding for the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund, which will be distributed among state agencies to conserve and protect wildlife and habitat, maintain and expand outdoor recreation, restore acequias, protect historic sites, and more. This is the largest investment made in conservation in New Mexico history. Tannis Fox of Conservation Voters New Mexico said this money can keep the fund sustainable “in perpetuity” and was especially needed in light of a recent Supreme Court decision, Sackett vs. EPA, which weakened the EPA’s ability to protect wetlands and waterways in New Mexico.

In less uplifting news, researchers at University of New Mexico found that wildlife near Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo were contaminated with staggeringly high amounts of “forever chemicals”: per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. UNM called these concentrations unprecedented—among the 23 species of birds and mammals studied, PFAS averaged in the tens of thousands of parts per billion. “To put this in perspective, the research team pointed out that thousands of dairy cattle in Clovis, New Mexico recently had to be destroyed because their milk was contaminated at less than six parts per billion,” reads the newsroom statement from UNM. The source of contamination is thought to be from a firefighting foam first used in the 1970s that has since been phased out of use at the base. The U.S. government is currently facing thousands of lawsuits brought on by victims of PFAS contamination across the nation.

Lastly, the highly contagious strain of bird flu that caused historic poultry deaths in 2022 is showing no signs of slowing down. The flu has now spread to the Antarctic and infected penguins and cormorants (black-and-white seabirds a little smaller than geese) according to a March report from Chilean researchers. This is the first time in recorded history that avian flu (or bird flu) has infected either species. Last year, in another first, a polar bear in Alaska died from bird flu. Researchers noted that bird flu presents an especially dangerous risk to endangered species like the Emperor Penguin, as they typically move about in close crowds, exacerbating potential spread. This strain has shown an uncommon adaptability to infect mammals; 221 cases of transmission to 18 different mammalian species have been reported in the U.S. since 2022. In December of 2023 the Centers for Disease Control reported a die-off of sea lions—5,224 of them—in Peru, associated with H5N1, caused by close contact with seabirds. Fewer cases of bird flu were reported last year, likely due to increased disease-preventative measures adopted by poultry farmers. The U.S. is currently researching a vaccine, and in February Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said one should be ready “in 18 months or so.”


  • Bryce Flanagan

    Bryce Flanagan moved from Sacramento, CA to Taos County in 2016, and has lived in Questa for two years. He's passionate about the unique and beautiful wildlife of our state and is a regular contributor to the Questa Del Rio News.

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