U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich weighed in on an ongoing and complicated dispute between the state Game Commission and environmental groups about accessing streams in New Mexico. Heinrich told NM Political Report that New Mexico’s leadership needs to step up efforts to protect stream access rights.
At issue is a rule adopted by the Game Commission in 2017 that enables landowners to apply through the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to certify portions of waterways that run through private property as “non-navigable.” By obtaining the non-navigable designation, those landowners are able to block off portions of waterways from public access. The rule was generally supported by landowners, and NMDGF approved several applications before it imposed a moratorium in July 2019 on issuing the certificates over legal questions.
Critics of the rule argue that restricting public access to waterways — including those that flow through private property — is unconstitutional. The New Mexico Constitution states that waterways belong to the public, and critics argue trespassing was never allowed under state law to access a public waterway. Water recreationalists have also argued that the rule has impeded recreation on some of the state’s most popular waterways, including the Chama, Pecos, Alamosa, Mimbres and Peñasco rivers.
Controversy around the issue swelled in early 2020, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declined to reappoint commission chair Joanna Prukop, whom she had appointed to the position in June 2019, after Prukop led a majority vote at the commission to ask the NMDGF to review and possibly amend the rule.
As the divisions of the United States have grown more complex over the years, lawmakers, regulators and landowners have been busy dividing up land. Railroads, highways, fencing and pipelines now stretch across thousands of miles of landscape; and borders have been established at every opportunity: national borders, state borders, jurisdictional borders and property lines. While these boundaries — both the physical boundaries and the more-or-less imaginary ones — have helped us organize and manage the resources of the land, they have severely impacted the wildlife we share space with. Decades of research has shown wildlife corridors, which refer to the routes animals take when moving across a landscape, are an important part of species survival. But large contiguous plots of land are becoming increasingly rare as development pushes into new areas, and there’s a need to protect those corridors if we want to limit impacts to those species.
A wave of national outrage buffeted New Mexico last summer after state game officials tracked and killed a black bear that had attacked a marathon runner on a trail in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Although the runner believes the bear was protecting its nearby cubs, New Mexico law since the 1970s has required the killing of wild animals in such cases so the brains can be tested for rabies. Now, a proposal to be considered by the state Legislature — developed with the help of the marathoner — would amend state law to give officials more leeway in evaluating circumstances of a wild animal attack and whether an animal should be killed. House Bill 109, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, would require officials to consider certain factors before making a determination about a wild animal that has bitten or otherwise potentially exposed a person to rabies. Those factors include the animal’s species, the animal’s potential for exposure to rabies and whether the animal had exhibited symptoms of a rabies infection.