February 24, 2021

Bill to revamp New Mexico wildlife management stalls in committee

Legislation that supporters say would modernize wildlife management in New Mexico but opponents counter would hurt outfitters who operate on public lands has stalled on a tie vote in a Senate committee.

“My district is parts of six counties — it is all rural — and I, in this case, I’m going to have to support my constituents,” Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, told other members of the Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday before joining with three Republicans to table the 241-page bill.

Senate Bill 312 is now stuck in the committee with just over three weeks left in the session.

Some lawmakers struggled over whether or not to support the measure, which included changes they supported wholeheartedly but others that gave them pause.

“I hate bills like this,” said Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces. “I hate them in general because I don’t think we get the best law out of making bills like this where we put some things everybody likes and we put some things people don’t like in there together instead of debating these as individual issues. … I would have much preferred that this was done as three or four separate bills.”

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Rep. Nathan Small, also Las Cruces Democrats, the bill would have increased the minimum percentage of draw licenses for game that must be issued to New Mexico residents to 90 percent from 84 percent. It also called for eliminating a provision requiring 10 percent of licenses to be set aside for hunters who contract with an outfitter. As a result, about 1,000 more tags would have been available for state residents.

“It sounds like a lot when you say 1,000 tags, but when you compare it to the fact that residents already get 19,959 tags a year, 1,000 is not that much,” Kerrie Cox Romero, executive director of the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, said in a telephone interview after the hourslong hearing. “But it’s a big hit to the outfitting industry because we only get [between 2,000 and 2,500] tags a year.”

Audrey McQueen, a single mother of four who owns Trophy Ridge Outfitters in Luna, said the bill would “totally ruin” her and her children’s way of life.

“I employ 25 different guides,” she said. “Their families depend on it every year.”

The bill proposed numerous other changes, including prohibiting a landowner from killing wildlife on their property without consulting the Department of Game and Fish first. The proposal called on the State Game Commission to develop rules over when and if wildlife could be killed to mitigate private property damage.

“Right now, in practicality, it can be a shoot-first-and-tell-folks-later situation,” Small said after the hearing. “What we want … is to avoid those kind of shoot-first scenarios that can lead to a really high loss of New Mexico’s wildlife.”

The bill also proposed to add bears, cougars and javelinas to the list of animals that must be removed from the field and used for human consumption.

“Right now, it’s technically legal to leave their meat in the field after a hunter with a hunting license harvests them,” Small said. “We believe that when you hunt … you should make all the efforts to recover the meat just like you have to do with every other big game species in New Mexico, and this would have standardized that for those three species.”

Other proposed changes included authorizing the commission by rule or policy to extend protection to any wildlife species.

In addition, the bill would have renamed the Department of Game and Fish the “Department of Wildlife Conservation” and the State Game Commission the “State Wildlife Conservation Commission.” The department estimated the name change would cost $3 million — a figure Small and Steinborn described as overly inflated and three times initial estimates.

Small called the inflation and what he said was a “lack of engagement” from the department on the bill “deeply concerning.”

“I would add,” Small said, “that it remains deeply concerning that we have yet to see the kinds of increases in resident hunting opportunities that most New Mexicans want.”

Although the bill didn’t advance Tuesday, Steinborn said it’s not dead.

“There’s a lot of important policy in that legislation, and I am committed to getting done what we can,” he said. “We’re going to be having lots of conversations over the next few days and see what consensus we can have on some of the concepts in the bill and hopefully keep moving.”