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April 14th Game Commission Report Back

The most recent meeting of the New Mexico State Game Commission was held on Thursday, April 14th at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. With the Organ Mountains as a breathtaking backdrop, the commission got to work by first hearing the case of revocations. The department presented a long list of individuals who met the criteria for initiation of the suspension process for license privileges.

After hearing the recommendations of the game wardens, the commission plowed through the cases and moved on to Agenda Item 8 – a proposed revision to Gaining Access Into Nature. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is excited by the proposed rule changes presented, which will make it easier for people to access public lands.

The current GAIN Rule was adopted in 2009 and was reviewed in 2014. The purpose of the proposed changes, as explained by Donald Auer, are to facilitate better use of Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and increase ease of access while also ensuring no additional harm. Currently, “WMAs are closed unless otherwise open,” the new rule hopes to change this.

The department collected comments from the public on the proposed rules, and received 35 in total. 13 supported the rule changes, 11 opposed based on the belief the rules included a ban on antler hunting – which it does not, and 2 opposed further restrictions.

The proposals were only up for discussion during this meeting, but we were excited to hear Commissioner Ralph Ramos say during the question section, “I strongly feel we need to be a leader in public access.” We couldn’t agree more with Commissioner Ramos’ statement, and hope to see the proposals approved when the time comes.

After reviewing the commission’s appeal process, the expansion of the Pecos Wilderness was up next. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation has been working with a diverse coalition to expand wilderness in the Pecos, and we didn’t know the proposal was on the agenda until a week or so before the meeting, leading us to believe it was going to be dead on arrival. Our Executive Director Garrett Vene Klasen got up and spoke in defense of our proposal by saying, “This is a conversation, we’re not going to see legislation in two weeks. There’s lots of opportunity here if done correctly. Come to all the meetings, I would love for you all to see this as an opportunity. You as an agency can and should add greatly to the final outcome of the proposal.”

One of the reasons presented against wilderness is the issue of gaining access to manage wildlife. In response to this, Nathan Small from the Wilderness Alliance got up and said, “Bighorn sheep were reintroduced into the wilderness. This is an opportunity to build on a successful reintroduction effort.”

Many other proponents of the plan spoke up in defense of it, and urged the commission that it was too early to vote to approve or deny the project. The commission agreed, and postponed making a definitive decision until more was known about the proposal.

We are excited to be given the opportunity to continue to work on this proposal with our coalition partners, and hopefully the State Game Commission.

After the Pecos Wilderness, the commission got an update about the Governor’s Special Auction Banquet results, a shooting preserve application, and a new proposed migratory bird rule was heard. Based on a 2015 survey, increases in sandhill crane permits and bag and possession limits, changes to regular duck season dates, the creation of a free Band-tailed Pigeon hunting permit, and an additional 20 days for the firearm dove season were proposed. As of April 11, the department received 94 comments mostly relating to the hunting season dates. No motion was necessary on the proposed rules.

Agenda Items 14 through 16 addressed initiating a biennial review of the state’s listed and threatened or endangered species, rules surrounding volunteers, and an update on proposed shooting ranges in New Mexico.

Next, Chief-Fisheries Division Michael Slone, presented the Department’s Statewide Fisheries Management Plan which needed to be approved by the commission. The proposals include a catch & release area on the Rio Chama, opening the upper West Fork Gila River to angling, a two fish limit for Gila trout streams to be opened to angling, and expanding Gila trout permit requirements to evaluate angling and maintaining opportunities. The public submitted 130 written and verbal comments on the plan revision and the department received overwhelming support for the proposed plan. The public expressed an interest in expanding special regulation or quality trout waters and native trout restoration. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is excited to see these additional fishing opportunities and the reintroduction of native fish species. At the end of the presentation, the commission approved the proposals.

Up next was an update on the revision of the Statewide Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). James Comins, Assistant Director of Resource Divisions, gave the first update since November 2015, and highlighted the progress made on revising the Species of Greatest Conservation Need list. The list was previously considered too long by the commission and insects, harvestable species, and additional species recommended for removal by biologists have been taken off the list. Future SWAP revisions includes a 30 day public comment period for review and input, re-engaging stakeholders to address specific language concerns, and incorporating comments into a final draft to be presented for approval at the November 2016 meeting. The deadline for the re-submission of SWAP to the US Fish and Wildlife Service is November 30, 2016. Missing that deadline again would mean that the department would forfeit approximately $900,000 in federal funding to use for species-specific habitat restoration. Hunter and angler license dollars would have to be used in lieu of federal money.

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is excited to see our state participate in the SWAP program, and Garrett Vene Klasen got up and said, “We are encouraged the commission will move forward with SWAP and that it continues to follow its mandate to steward our native species so the burden is not put on license buyers.”

At the end of the presentation and public comments, Paul Kienzle III, Chairman of the Commission added, “The SWAP will come back before the commission so if you like something or don’t like something – call me.” We are excited by these updates and look forward to continuing to see the SWAP process move forward.

After the closed executive session, Garrett Vene Klasen took advantage of the public comment section to speak in favor of reopening the E-Plus rule (elk tag allocation). The New Mexico Wildlife Federation first appealed to Chairman Kienzle at our 2014 Sportsmens Summit in Soccorro about reopening the rule. After nearly two years, public lands sportsmen continue to miss out on hunting tags (nearly 50 percent of tags are awarded to private landowners) while elk depredation issues are increasing. Landowner Gerald Chacon echoed Vene Klasen’s sentiments about a need to control the elk population; every year approximately 8,000 private land cow tags are unused. Our elk populations are not being managed effectively. It is clear the E-Plus rule is not working for New Mexico. Contact your commission, Chairman Kienzle, and the governor demanding that the E-Plus rule be reopened.

We look forward to continuing to work with the commission and our coalition partners on the Pecos Wilderness expansion and all the important wildlife work we still have to accomplish together.