A lot was on the agenda for the most recent meeting of the game commission in Santa Rosa, including a presentation from the State Land Office, updates on the Gold King Mine spill, the Bighorn Sheep Rule, Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, and the Statewide Wildlife Action Plan.
The meeting kicked off with Aubrey Dunn of the State Land Office presenting a proposed lease agreement for the 2017 – 2018 season. The lease was changed from a one to a three year deal, and after presenting the proposal Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn and Laura Riley, deputy commissioner stood for questions.
Commissioner Ralph Ramos jumped right into the question section and asked about land locked areas, public lands that are surrounded by private land so the public doesn’t have access to them. Ramos clarified his point by explaining that sportsmen feel like they’re paying for land even though they don’t have access to it. “I want to see more effort on both sides to encourage these private owners to provide access to these landlocked areas. To me if it’s locked out no one should be able to hunt on it.” Commissioner Dunn responded by stating that taking out part of the land would require an appraisal of everything. This issue also touches on how far hunters are willing to walk and what parameters make land truly accessible.
Commissioner Ramos followed up by asking if any of the leasees or private owners had been surveyed to see their willing to swap lands to increase access. Commissioner Dunn explained that he often has landowners asking to swap land, but a Supreme Court ruling has made it “almost impossible” to swap land. Dunn’s statement is based on opinion and not factual.
Commissioner Dunn and Riley then outlined the projects they have worked with the Department of Game and Fish on, including the Patty Gold Fire, restoration projects, and providing the department with contractors if there’s a study happening on state lands so the SLO knows who’s out on the land. The SLO also got a million and a half dollars for forest restoration and illegal dumping and expressed an interest in working with the department on those restoration projects.
The department then clarified that this agreement is essentially the same one as last year, with the exception of the trapping section which clarifies that signs must be placed where trapping is taking place at the access points for the sake of public safety.
Commissioner Ramos had additional questions about camping and backpacking at access points. Riley explained that the agreement sets forth that camping is authorized where camping is a “practical necessity.” Whether camping is a necessity is the discretion of the commissioner, meaning if someone wants to camp in a non designated camping area they would need permission from the commissioner himself. Ramos continued by explaining that current regulations don’t allow people to fly and hunt on the same day, so for people to hunt in a harder to access area, they would need to camp out and wait the 24 hours to be able to hunt legally. Dunn and Riley clarified again that in order to camp in these areas the public would need special permission from the commissioner.
As the commissioners ended their question public comment began, and New Mexico Wildlife Federation Executive Director Garrett Vene Klasen got up and said, “I think we’re getting closer to the value for this lease, it’s great to see the department has done a lot of work and I know Commissioner Dunn has also worked hard on this. I want to thank Commissioner Ramos for his comments, and I want to remind everyone of Arizona. In Arizona you can virtually camp wherever you want on state trust lands modeling national public lands and we’d like to see New Mexico heading in that direction and I really appreciate Ramos’s comments. You (meaning the NMDGF Commission) can shut down hunting on landlocked public lands that belong to all our citizenry. No one should have special privileges to hunt landlocked public lands. I think with this practical necessity portion, I think people will find it very difficult to get in the backcountry, I don’t think it’ll work very well. Thank you very much.”
Commissioner Dunn then responded to Vene Klasen’s comments by oddly invoking Ayn Rand’s fictional novel Atlas Shrugged and stated, “The comments that were just made are people who are just opposed to private land. We’re turning into a land where private land no longer matters. I think private lands is one of the main structures of our democracy, I think with more public lands we’re going in the wrong way.” Both Vene Klasen and NMWF honor legitimate private property rights and the conversation focused on use of public lands, not private.
Next up on the agenda was an update on the Gold King Mine spill. Eric Frey, the department’s sport fish program manager, gave an update on what actions the department took and when, and what the toxin levels are now in the Animas and San Juan Rivers. Frey discussed how the heavy metal levels are below public health risk for consumption and that fish and macroinvertebrate populations appear normal. While metal concentrations went down after 6 months, Frey also stated that the control group the department tested showed the same reductions. Frey also mentioned that the department doesn’t have any pre spill levels so it’s hard to tell if the levels are “back to normal” but they are below advisory levels.
Vene Klasen spoke again during the public comments saying, “I think it’s really important to talk about some facts about the mine. I personally visited Cement Creek. It’s a draining mine which means the creek itself – the font of which comes largely from inside the mine – runs at 5 cfcs, the creek is the color of tang and toxic. The creek is devoid of life. It’s been draining into the Animas for decades at this rate, and in 1975 we had the same thing happen – a catastrophic spill but caused purely by water naturally building up in the old mine. It’s like a pimple, the water builds up in the mine and it overflows. The EPA was trying to fix it, they estimated it’s a 20 billion dollar issue addressing draining mines westwide. There are solutions, I think responsible pragmatic reform. Reforming the 1872 Mining Act will help address these issues. Blaming the EPA isn’t the solution to the problem, we have these issues in a lot of our streams in New Mexico, we need to find ways to limit remediation. We’re going to see this issue again.”
An interesting topic was brought up next – the use of technology while hunting and what constitutes “fair chase.” Right now there are no regulations about trail camera devices and method and manner of take or any technology used while hunting.
Commissioner Ramos chimed in first again stating “it’s all about fair chase. This is just my personal opinion but I’d do away with all trail cameras, but I do see the benefit of people tracking wildlife on their properties.” It’s just not a fair chase when a trophy hunter is able to see where the big game are, Ramos added.
Commissioner Robert Espinoza disagreed saying, I appreciate where technology is going, but where do we stop? And what is fair chase? I’m opposed to creating a new rule that I don’t think we need right now and we don’t know how to enforce violations.
Robert Griego for the department said that most investigations conducted are lengthy and that it would be up to the department to to decide what the punishment would be. Commissioner Espinoza expressed hesitation on having more time spent on punishing these types of violations.
Commissioner Ramos disagreed saying, “To me all our hunter education talks about ethics and ethical hunting and to me that’s the foundation of why we’re here today and to me it’s getting out of hand. And yes I understand to prove a case and utilizing our time otherwise with our law enforcement but I just strongly feel that ethics are a big thing here and it would be great to see New Mexico lead on this issue.”
Commissioner Elizabeth Ryan wanted to know the extent of the problem being witnessed out in the field. Griego expressed their stance that it is “somewhat unfair” to get a text if you’re sitting in your office and you can find out right away if there’s a lion out there. It’s something we need to decide, and other states are just beginning to develop laws around these issues. Commissioner Ryan also had a question about probably cause and what would go into seizing phones of people presumed to be breaking any laws that might be implemented. Griego explained it would be no different than the way crimes are currently investigated where evidence may be on someone’s phone – a search warrant is obtained and a couple of officers run a program which can sometimes be exhaustive, but any new law would not be very different than what’s already being done.
Commissioner Bill Montoya chimed in saying, “when we put laws on the books that are marginal and maybe hard to enforce, we need to give that a lot of thought. We need to think do we really need it? … The time we spend on this versus the time we spend on something else needs to be thought about. It should be done when it gets to the point when we can’t live with it, it’s probably something we need but let’s just think about it from those lines.”
Commissioner Ramos spoke again next about ethics, expanding, “I think if we did have this rule, I think 90 percent of hunters are rule followers but there are always people who are testing the limits. This is another tool not only to support ethics with the general public but a tool to be utilized with our law enforcement agency here.”
Commissioner Ryan spoke again saying, I would like to have this as a discussion item again and to hear from the officers again. And to address Commissioner Montoya’s concern about time. I’d like more feedback and discussion.
Griego promised to poll the officers and provide feedback.
Vene Klasen took advantage of the public comment period again stating, “I’m really excited to see you guys taking this up … The commission is the figurehead for our community’s ethical standards. I would encourage you to move on this issue and ban real time cameras immediately. If you’re a professional poacher you can use these really efficiently and it would be really hard for these hard working officers to catch them.”
Agenda item 13 was a discussion item about updating the electronic tagging requirements for big game and turkey. Director Alexa Sandoval explained that the department has been getting more and more information about people printing multiple licenses and using them to their advantage. It’s hard to put a case together around this as people have the copies on hand, but the department is hearing from constituents more often that the system is being abused.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what to do about this issue as it’s hard to prevent people from printing multiple licenses at home, but it’s also a very convenient system for people to use. Commissioner Ryan spoke in favor of going back to the old system where tags were mailed to people at home. Commissioner Espinoza said they system might have accidentally given honest people the opportunity to break the law, and criminals an easy way to commit criminal behavior. Robert Griego said that other states have similar print at home systems, and they can look into other options for the commission going forward.
Agenda item 15 saw the approval of the bighorn sheep rule, which will give hunters who put in for tags and didn’t receive one a first shot at harvesting bighorn sheep that need to be taken out of the herd for explicit, emergency measures to preserve a particular herd (intermingling with domestic sheep for example). This update to the rule now brings bighorn sheep in line with other big game, previously bighorn sheep weren’t being hunted because their populations weren’t large enough so this is a real success story and great news for hunters!
Agenda item 16 related to allowing youth hunting opportunities on the Wedding Cake Ranch in the northeast corner of the state. Youth were given the opportunity to learn about firearm handling, hunting skills, and wildlife education. The area now has three turkey hunts annually, and buck and doe hunts. The commission has reached an agreement with the owner of the ranch to allow bighorn sheep hunting on the land and there will be a 50/50 split tags for public and private land hunters. Restoration projects have also occurred on the Dry Cimarron River, including planting native species and trees to benefit wildlife. There are an estimated 80 bighorn on the Wedding Cake Ranch, and the owner, Mr. Amos, has agreed to stop feeding them in coordination with the department’s recommendations.
Commissioner Ryan offered her thanks to Mr. Amos for his cooperation and work with the department saying, “this is a really special area, close to the hearts of the department.”
After discussing an update on bighorn and desert sheep populations, the department moved on to an update about the status of the wolf recovery in New Mexico. The current recovery plan was written in 1982 and has no delisting criteria or population goal. The department believes there should be delisting criteria and attainable goals and next steps to take in the plan which is currently does not. There have been previous attempts to update the plan, but they have all failed. The department then traveled to Mexico to get a better understanding of wolf recovery in that area. Working with Mexican scientists, the department reanalyzed habitat within the historic wolf range. Much habitat in Mexico was not suitable for recovery and it was “optimistically” estimated there could be up to 800 wolves in Mexico. All accounts from different researchers put the Mexican grey wolf historically in Mexico and in south of New Mexico.
2010 was the last attempt at a recovery plan. The presentation concluded with information about a meeting and workshop in August to get the best available science.
Chairman Kienzle opened the question and comment section by stating: “I’d like to address the elephant in the living room, the department is in court. I take no pleasure in that, what that tells me is the process of collaboration has completely broken down. But I’m hopeful that we can now sit down with the service to find a way to go forward, as I read the judge’s decision that seemed to be part of it we do have … we all need to shake hands and move on.” He concluded by saying the department is committed to restoring wolves.
Presenter Stewart Liley, Chief of Wildlife Management, responded by echoing that the department is making progress, saying “we want a plan that lays out ways to go forward. We are making progress, we do have a seat at the table.”
After Chairman Kienzle questioned if the November 2017 deadline seemed reasonable for implementing a plan, Liley responded that they previously didn’t sign off because they didn’t think the deadline was reasonable, but now thinks that the department will have a “plan that will suffice” next year.
Chairman Kienzle sounded optimistic about the progress being made, and entertained a motion for the commission, under his signature, to send some a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to see what a collaborative effort would look like, which was passed.
Vene Klasen got up and spoke once again, stating, “One thing we don’t want to see is the department spending money on lawsuits. Money’s tight and we would rather see that money spent on things like restoring habitat. We don’t want to see this money thrown into frivolous lawsuits. It’s good to see there is collaboration and we would like to see that, we just don’t want to see agency money going into lawsuits.”
After plowing through Agenda items 19 – 23, the department got to the update on the State Wildlife Action Plan, or SWAP. Captain James Comins game the update and said that since April the department had met with oil & gas, a range improvement task force, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, the Cattlegrowers Association, and the livestock bureau. The number of species on the list has been reduced to 255 from 455. The stakeholders the department met with discussed the monitoring, prioritization, categories, concern about which species were on the list, and the difference between threatened and endangered. The oil & stakeholders expressed concern about the global warming section in the State Wildlife Action Plan report.
Another meeting is scheduled with gas and oil and the agricultural department said they would propose drafts with revision opportunities from the department.
The department will collect public comments from August 2nd through the 31st and the final plan will be presented on November 17th.
Commissioners Espinoza and Bob Ricklefs expressed their thank that the department met with these groups, and Espinoza added that he’s received a lot of comments in favor of “allowing these groups to be heard.” He also asked if the list was reviewed again as the number remaining has continued to be questioned.
Comins explained that there was talk of taking 11 mollusks off the list, and that there’s a scoring system involved in which species go on the list. Chairman Kienzle chimed in next to ask about other stakeholders, specifically tribes and “Garrett’s organization.” Comins responded that they haven’t met with any of the tribes and he hadn’t even thought of it. He added that anyone can comment during the public comment period, and that the New Mexico Wildlife Federation had been sent a draft proposal.
Vene Klasen got up again and expressed appreciation for the work done, but also concern over the part of the plan that involves oil & gas and agriculture having “some kind of editorial control of the document” and to encourage the commission to have science drive the document and not anecdote. “When this process started it sounded like anecdote was going to outweigh the exhaustive work the department’s biologist had done, and I just want to urge that not to happen.” Chairman Kienzle reiterated that the department will have final control of the document.
The meeting wrapped up shortly after and also included an update about the Hunters Helping the Hungry program. Learn more about what you can do to help this important program.
The next meeting of the Game Commission will be held on August 25th in Rio Rancho.