COMMENTARY: As a young boy, I often found myself looking at elk and deer with my grandfather on our ranch located in northern New Mexico. I would sit silently as my grandfather pointed to the nearby elk herd and tell me stories about hunting, ranching and the lifestyle he was born into.
Like many New Mexicans, my family and I are traditional land users. Living off the land is what we do. It’s our identity and a strong source of pride. Our summers consisted of routine ranch maintenance – fixing fences and chopping firewood to heat our homes in the winter. Once the wood was cut and fences were mended, we picked up our bows, rifles and camouflage began our annual hunt to put meat in our freezers for the year.
Now 20 years later, I am following in the footsteps of my grandfather: fixing fences, cutting wood and filling my freezer with locally sourced wild game. Over this time period, the one thing that’s changed is my understanding not only of the issues and complexities of being a traditional land user, hunter and angler, but also how important it is to protect our public lands and wildlife.
Like most New Mexicans, it’s safe to say that one of the best parts of living in New Mexico is enjoying our outdoors and the diverse wildlife and beauty of our state’s landscapes. However, what’s not safe to say is that our future generations will get to enjoy these same lands the way we did.
Currently, the Trump administration is reviewing the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and threatening to shrink it and reduce the protections the monument designation provides to traditional users and wildlife. In protecting 242,500 beautiful acres, one of the most important things this designation does is protect vital wildlife corridors and connectivity that provide habitat, breeding grounds and migratory routes from central New Mexico to southern Colorado along the Upper Rio Grande.
Scientific studies show that elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, antelope, cougars, bald eagles, red-tail hawks and even Rio Grande cutthroat trout rely on these corridors to provide terrestrial and aquatic connectivity between the monument and its bordering areas in the Santa Fe, Carson and Rio Grande national forests.
The San Antonio and Ute Mountains, reaching over 10,000 feet, provide key summer, winter and corridor habitat for many of these species. The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is the lynchpin that holds these landscapes together.
With pressure from industry and the Trump administration to shrink the monument, it’s important for New Mexicans to recognize that the smaller and more disconnected a species’ habitat becomes, the more vulnerable that species becomes when its fragmented populations lack genetic diversity. The ability of wildlife to adapt to harsh weather conditions and human encroachment is greatly compromised.
Failing to recognize and protect the critical habitat and corridors that run throughout the existing monument would compromise the designation’s goal of preserving the ecological and species diversity of the Rio Grande del Norte.
At the end of this month, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is coming to New Mexico to review our national monuments. I want to encourage everyone to make their voice heard by telling the secretary to protect Rio Grande del Norte — not only for our wildlife, but also our New Mexican way of life.
Jeremy Romero is the coordinator of wildlife corridors for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.