Commentary: Lawmakers have introduced a bill in the New Mexico Legislature that would expand and modernize wildlife management in the state while giving state residents more hunting opportunities.
The New Mexico Wildlife Heritage Act, SB312, introduced by Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Rep. Nathan Small, both Las Cruces Democrats, would change the name of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The bill would expand the wildlife department’s mission to do more to address the needs of non-game species and update several provisions implementing better wildlife management practices. While a majority of states have structured their wildlife management under ‘wildlife departments’, New Mexico is one of only 11 states that still manages wildlife within a ‘game and fish’ structure.
“It’s been a century since the New Mexico Legislature created the first game commission in 1921,” Sen. Steinborn said. “Our state has grown significantly since then, and with the fourth highest biodiversity of any state in the country, New Mexico needs a more comprehensive approach to wildlife management. We need to update our laws to provide for the next century of wildlife management in the state.”
Rep. Small emphasized that New Mexico’s wildlife plays an important role in the state’s growing outdoor economy and highlighted New Mexico’s rich hunting heritage. “I remember going deer hunting every fall with my grandfather on Mt. Taylor. Those seasons shaped me in profound ways, and our legislation recognizes that hunting will remain an important tradition for New Mexicans,” Small said. “This bill recognizes the importance of managing wildlife as a critical food source and expands the role of wildlife management to cover more species. Increasingly, people are coming to New Mexico to see all kinds of wildlife and we need management that places a premium on conservation.”
The bill has garnered support from a broad coalition of New Mexico hunting and conservation groups, including the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Hispanics Enjoying Camping Hunting and the Outdoors (HECHO), Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, Southwest Environmental Center, Animal Protection Voters, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Audubon Southwest, WildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The bill would make the following changes:
- The new Department of Wildlife Conservation will have expanded authority to manage game and non-game populations of all wildlife across our diverse state. With expanded wildlife management, New Mexico will be well poised to capitalize on extensive funding opportunities [approximately $27 million annually] upon passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act in Congress.
- Repeals a widely unpopular provision that allows landowners to kill deer, elk and other protected wildlife without department permission or oversight because the wildlife posed a perceived threat to their crops. This provision has resulted in the widespread killing of elk, pronghorn antelope and other species.
- Expands New Mexico’s definition of “waste of game” to prohibit leaving edible portions of bear, cougar and javelina in the field. Current state law allows hunters to remove only the skin, claws or other body parts from bear, cougar and javelina and leave the rest to waste.
- Supports the state’s hunting heritage by providing more than 1000 additional elk tags for NM residents each year. The act will bring New Mexico in line with other western states by eliminating the outfitter set-aside and providing nonresidents an equal opportunity to compete for the full 10 percent of nonresident draw tags. New Mexico resident hunters have been treated unfairly by our state’s tag allocation system for decades. Many states, such as Arizona and Montana, set strict caps of 10 percent for nonresident licenses. For nearly 10 years, New Mexico has set aside only 84 percent of draw tags for resident hunters. The state reserves 10 percent of draw tags for hunters who hire an outfitter while only 6 percent are earmarked for nonresident hunters who don’t hire an outfitter.
- Gives the Department a one-time $1 million dollar appropriation for management of species of greatest conservation need. The Department currently does not receive any general fund money for wildlife management and typically focuses its funding on game species. This new funding would go far for animals like Pecos pupfish, pinyon jay, boreal toad, and more.
The bill calls for a $2 million state appropriation to implement its provisions, an investment that would likely bring the state millions more in federal matching funds.
“This bill recognizes the ecological reality that all species are important and that wildlife is a public trust that the government has a duty to protect for the benefit of all New Mexicans, including future generations,” said Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center. “It will give our state wildlife agency the mandate and authority it needs to embrace a broader mission and prevent species from disappearing here in New Mexico in the face of a global extinction crisis.”
Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, noted that many non-resident hunters already buy permit authorizations from private landowners without going through the draw and said any hunter is free to retain an outfitter if they choose. “It’s completely unfair to subsidize the outfitting industry at the expense of resident hunters,” Deubel said. “This legislation will bring New Mexico in line with other states in the West and provide more than one thousand additional opportunities to our resident hunters each year for elk alone.”
“Good wildlife governance has never been more critical as we face the impacts of climate change and a mass extinction event,” said Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “This legislation is a great first step towards protecting biodiversity and modernizing how New Mexico cares for one of its most important assets.”
“The Wildlife Heritage Act offers a long needed opportunity for New Mexico to advance the state’s game & fish agency into a 21st century wildlife conservation powerhouse, expanding its mission to better steward both game and nongame wildlife alike,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, northern conservation director for NM Wild. “Not only does the legislation enact much needed hunting equity for New Mexico residents, it also shines a light upon our state’s unique wildlife heritage and diversity. Passing this critical legislation will greatly benefit New Mexico’s wildlife, the rich outdoor heritage of its residents and our state’s economic growth and diversification.”
“The New Mexico Wildlife Heritage Act brings some long-overdue changes. These changes are critical for illustrating New Mexico’s commitment to ensuring the future of wildlife populations,” said Max. O Trujillo, San Miguel County Commissioner. “Giving residents back their tags brings more opportunities to harvest our own meat - which has been a huge part of our culture. To native New Mexicans, hunting has never been about money, it has always been about food and providing for our families.”
Norma Chairez-Hartell, Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project Board Member, remarked, “We stand in full support of the New Mexico Wildlife Heritage Act. It equalizes the playing field for all New Mexicans by giving more opportunities to hunt and feed our families, regardless of who we may know or how much money we make.”
“Hunting is an ancestral tradition that connects us to nature and to the outdoors,” said Rock Ulibarri, Advisory Board Chair for Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors (HECHO). “For generations, our families have relied on wildlife as a sustainable source of food. The New Mexico Wildlife Heritage Act helps support traditional land users’ connection to the outdoors, increasing accessibility for everyday New Mexicans to participate in a centuries old tradition that puts food on the table.”
“This bill takes several long-overdue steps forward in shaping a wildlife conservation agency that better reflects the broad spectrum of New Mexicans’ interests and values, including the reduction of gratuitous wildlife killing and the protection of non-game species that serve as cornerstones for a healthy, robust ecosystem,” said Jessica Johnson, chief government affairs officer for Animal Protection Voters.
“We are excited to see comprehensive legislation to modernize wildlife management in New Mexico”, said Judy Calman, New Mexico Policy Director for The Audubon Society. “With a biodiversity that is nearly unparalleled anywhere else in the country and a wide variety of sensitive ecosystems, our state has an urgent need to broaden the focus of the Department to include songbirds, pollinators, and other non-game species and to ensure the stability of all wildlife for generations to come”.
"SB 312 would bring long needed change in wildlife governance to recognize that the limited list of species over which the state now has purview is not sufficient to protect ecosystems," said Mary Katherine Ray, Wildlife Chair of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club. "The integrity of the biotic community depends on all of its members."
"Hunting and fishing remain important, but in the face of the biodiversity crisis and climate change, it's important that our wildlife agency has the tools necessary to tackle this increasingly complex mission,” said Michael Dax, NM Representative, Defenders of Wildlife. “Re-orienting the Department's focus to conservation and protection of all wildlife, big and small, will ensure it can be responsive to these shifting values."