Proposed overhaul of New Mexico wildlife agency stalls

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Legislation that would have overhauled New Mexico’s wildlife management agency stalled in a Senate committee Tuesday after a lengthy debate in which opponents warned that proposed changes to the distribution of hunting tags would devastate guides and outfitters and cost rural communities jobs and revenue.

Some lawmakers said they could support elements of the legislation, such as changing the name of the state Game and Fish Department and broadening its mission to include conservation of species beyond big game like elk and deer.

But other provisions helped to further divide the state's rural and urban factions.

Among the concerns were potential economic impacts on guides and outfitters. Opponents of the bill said many would likely go out of business if they no longer received a share of the state’s hunting tags and that would mean lost jobs and revenues for rural communities at a time when the state is trying to build an outdoor recreation economy.

The measure also would have eliminated a provision in state law that allows farmers, ranchers and other landowners to kill wildlife that is damaging their crops, fencing or other property. The bill would have required landowners to work with the Game and Fish Department on plans to mitigate such conflicts before any animals are killed.

Republican Sen. Gregg Schmedes said he hears from his constituents and others around New Mexico that it has become harder to live off the land and he's worried about the unintentional consequences of such legislation. He pointed to possible violations of the constitutional rights of property owners and the ability to attract out-of-state dollars from hunters and others.

“I understand the tension of privatizing a public resource,” he said. “It's not just about the hunter. It's about the overall welfare of New Mexicans to make a living and to get out of poverty and provide for their families."

Audrey McQueen, a single mother of four and an outfitter from western New Mexico, said she employs about two dozen guides each season and pays tens of thousands in gross receipts taxes each year as a result of her business. She said stores, restaurants and everyone else in Catron County depend on the hunting season and the legislation would ruin that way of life.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Rep. Nathan Small, the two Democrats pushing the bill, told the committee it’s time to modernize the Game and Fish Department and shift the focus to broader conservation efforts beyond big game species given the threats of drought and climate change.

Steinborn said it would still be up to the state Game Commission to decide which species would be added to the list of those the department manages and the commission could set rules for dealing with problem wildlife.

Small said the measure also would shift more hunting permits to residents rather than out-of-state hunters.

Currently, 84% of tags go to residents, 10% are set aside for outfitters and 6% go to nonresidents. Under the bill, Small said 90% would be reserved for residents and the rest for out-of-state hunters with no carve out for outfitters.

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation, environmentalists and animal welfare advocates all voiced support for the legislation.

Other sportsmen groups and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce were among those in opposition.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, the Democratic chair of the Senate Conservation Committee, said lawmakers have been inundated with thousands of phone calls and emails from people on both sides. She was among those who voted to table the legislation, saying her district is made up of rural areas that span six counties and she had to stand with her constituents.

Like Stefanics, other lawmakers suggested the bill was too sweeping and that some of the issues should have been tackled individually.

The New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association agreed.

Kerrie Cox Romero with the outfitters group said it appeared the sponsors were trying to dangle more hunting tags in front of resident hunters to buy favor to change the purview of the Game and Fish Department. She called it “smoke and mirrors.”

Loren Patterson with the ranchers group said the bill would amount to an unfunded mandate for the agency to broaden its mission at a time when the state budget is stretched. He also said the public participation process has been strained due to the pandemic and many voices aren't being heard.

“Slow and steady wins the race on modernizing a state agency like this,” he said. “We can always do it through the rule-making process and the Game Commission so that way grievances can be brought up and specific solutions can be found."

Jesse Deubel, head of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, argued that the changes would bring New Mexico in line with other states and open the door for more federal funding for conservation efforts. He said many people dismiss the department because they believe it serves only hunters and anglers.

“Symbolism really matters,” he said. “The department needs to be rebranded and better funded. Those two things are mutually inclusive. ”