Interview of the Week: Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)
Senator Udall has served the state of New Mexico in the United States Senate since 2009 and in that time has been a staunch champion of wildlife. The senator recently introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019 and was kind enough to sit down with us to tell us a bit about his bill.
ODP: What’s a wildlife corridor and do they already exist?
TU: A wildlife corridor is an essential tool to forestall and stave off the mass extinction crisis threatening a million plant and animal species around the world. These corridors are pieces of landscape and/or seascape that allow native species to move within their habitat or to move from one habitat to another. Wildlife corridors play an important role in helping to conserve native biodiversity, reduce human interactions – like traffic accidents – and allow wildlife to move as habitats shift and the environment changes. Corridors can occur as natural occurrences or can be human-managed to facilitate the necessary movement of species into more suitable habitats – a key strategy for species adapting to climate change.
This year alone, three states have passed wildlife corridor legislation at the state level— New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Oregon— and many other states are considering legislation on wildlife corridors.
ODP: It’s estimated that 1 in 5 animal and plant species in the United States is at risk of extinction. Will the expansion of wildlife corridors ensure that we avoid this fate?
TU: There’s no question wildlife is in crisis. That’s due to habitat loss, deforestation, and of course, climate change. The UN report on biodiversity made one thing as clear as day: Humans are the primary reason that one million species are facing extinction. Human-made barriers have fragmented landscapes and habitats, cutting off access to resources and migration routes. With a crisis of this magnitude there is no silver bullet, no panacea. But wildlife corridors can play an important role in stemming this tide of extinction. Wildlife corridors would both protect and preserve the land and the resources species need to survive and thrive. The science is clear – corridors help protect our most iconic species and can help address the extinction crisis.
ODP: You have proposed a bill to expand protection for wildlife corridors. How would it help private landowners to work with the government more effectively on protecting migratory species?
TU: Private landowners are critical partners in this effort, which is why my bill directs federal agencies to work with willing private landowners to identify collaborative solutions. By offering willing, voluntary landowners funding through a new Wildlife Movement Grant Program, designed to invest in land improvement projects that would benefit wildlife movement on non-federal lands, our bill incentivizes caring landowners to protect wildlife corridors.
ODP: Who is backing the legislation? Who is opposing it? Will it pass this Congress?
TU: Rep. Beyer (D-Va.) introduced this legislation on the House side and it is cosponsored by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.). In the Senate the legislation is a cosponsored by U.S. Senators Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
I am working hard to see our bill move this Congress. Senator McConnell has bragged about the Senate being a legislative graveyard, but I think we may have opportunities to advance this critical legislation. The bill has been referred to the Environment and Public Works Committee, and I will work with the committee leadership to move it through committee expeditiously.
There has been some confusion that this is only a western state issue, but the loss of wildlife habitat is a national and global issue. For example, New Hampshire was the second state this session to pass legislation on wildlife corridors, and Florida has an incredibly successful wildlife corridor program that was essential for survival of some of Florida’s diverse wildlife. The more educational conversations that I have about the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, the more we learn how to strengthen the bill based on feedback to increase support for the bill.
I think that Americans are really waking up to the reality of this mass extinction crisis – and they need to put the pressure on their members of Congress to sign on to this bill.
ODP: How has the Trump Administration set back implementation of the Endangered Species Act?
TU: The Trump administration has proposed the most potentially damaging changes to the Endangered Species Act in several decades, including plans to undermine the longstanding rule that only scientific data can be used in determining whether to protect a species, ending key protections for ‘threatened’ species and weakening bedrock consultation requirements. Any of these changes would undermine the ESA and upend over four decades of bipartisan support for protecting our native wildlife in danger of extinction. But we won’t stand by as this administration and its allies in Congress launch a calculated assault on these critical protections on behalf of special interests and anti-environment extremists. My colleagues and I will continue to work tirelessly to show that partisan efforts to gut endangered species safeguards won’t pass muster in Congress.