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Heinrich promotes wildlife recovery bill in Santa Fe

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich visited a place in Santa Fe on Friday that offered the best hope for spotting a pinyon jay, a bird that has grown more elusive as its numbers have fallen.

But alas, seeing the blue-hued bird known for plucking nuts from piñon cones and reseeding the trees wasn’t in the cards for Heinrich during his visit to the Randall Davey Audubon Center.

Before going on the bird-watching jaunt, Heinrich and an Audubon staffer agreed that if they didn’t see a pinyon jay, it would underscore the need to pass a bipartisan bill to aid struggling species before they are listed.

The New Mexico Democrat is co-sponsoring a bill, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that Heinrich believes would help imperiled wildlife rebound before they approach the brink of extinction, when it becomes more costly and arduous to save them.

The legislation can be likened to improving health care, but for wildlife, he said.

“It’s a primary care approach to keeping these things vibrant rather than waiting till they need to be in the emergency room,” Heinrich said. “And everyone knows emergency room efforts are far more expensive — [and] usually far less successful — than if you pay a little bit of attention early on.”

The bill, which passed the House in June, would funnel $1.4 billion a year to states and $100 million to tribes to help ailing species recover.

It’s a relatively rare bipartisan effort in a Congress that has become extremely polarized, with the election year making the political climate even more adversarial.

Heinrich said the two parties can still collaborate when it comes to protecting wildlife and open spaces, and he’s confident the bill will pass the Senate with a solid bipartisan vote.

“People really care about their native wildlife, and they interact with it in different ways, but across the political spectrum, we have really good partners on the Republican side,” Heinrich said.

The pinyon jay, an iconic bird in New Mexico, symbolizes the need for making this kind of investment in species in decline, he added.

More than 80 percent of the jay population has been lost since 1970, and it could shrink by as much as half in the next 15 years if protective measures aren’t taken, conservation advocates say.

The birds have a symbiotic relationship with piñon pines, collecting nuts from the trees for food and stashing them to eat later.

Researchers have found the birds have an uncanny memory of where they put the nuts and are able to recover these caches 95 percent of the time. The 5 percent of the nuts they miss are what sprout new piñon trees.

A climate growing warmer and drier, amplifying the West’s 23-year megadrought, has made the piñon more vulnerable to bark beetles because drought-stressed trees can’t produce the resin to repel the pests.

Beetle infestations killed 350 million piñons in 2002, and millions more perished in 2012 — with the mass die-offs erasing huge chunks of the jays’ prime food source.

The dwindling jays, in turn, are seeding fewer piñons, creating a downward spiral for that forest ecosystem, Heinrich said.

Piñons also destroyed in wildfires and land-clearing projects to build housing and create grazing pastures.

Neither the Forest Service nor the Bureau of Land Management is required to think of the jay or its habitat when conducting prescribed burns or tree thinning because the bird is not on a protected list, said Jon Hayes, Audubon Southwest director.

“They are not taking the needs of this bird into consideration,” Hayes said. “The regulatory environment hasn’t done this.”

If the bill becomes law, that would change, Hayes added.

Heinrich said the public as a whole seemed to have developed a greater appreciation for the outdoors during the pandemic, when that was their main getaway from things being shut down. With that comes a stronger connection to nature and wildlife, he said.

He feels most people would want to protect species such as the pinyon jay rather than let them fade into oblivion.

“Once you lose a species, it’s gone,” Heinrich said.