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Split commission accepts $1 million demand for access

Roswell, November 2015
Nov. 20, 2015

New Mexico hunters and anglers will be able to use State Trust Lands again next year, but at a steep cost. The State Game Commission, meeting Thursday in Roswell, approved a one-year lease for $1 million – a five-fold increase over the $200,000 sportsmen have been paying for a decade or more.

The near unanimous vote – only Commissioner Ralph Ramos of Las Cruces voted “no” – sets up a repeat performance next year, in which State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn can again hold sportsmen hostage by demanding far more for access to State Trust Land than many sportsmen are willing to pay.

The remaining five commissioners (Chairman Paul Kienzle only votes in case of a tie) all basically said the same thing: We hate doing this, but we will. New Mexico Wildlife Federation and Dona Ana County Associated Sportsmen had asked the Commission to reject anything less than a three-year deal, but no other options were discussed. Dunn has repeatedly said he wants the lease to end up at $2 million a year, and has mentioned $5 million as a possible target.

NMWF President John Crenshaw called the lease approval disappointing. “We thought it was way too much, too fast,” he said. “Sportsmen were willing to pay a reasonable increase for access, but Aubrey Dunn put the Commission in a no-win situation with his exorbitant demand. We wanted a minimum of three years to ensure we could not be held up again.”

Details of the new agreement are not yet public, but according to information released Thursday sportsmen will get few additional benefits for the $1 million. Scouting is still restricted to seven days before the start of a licensed hunt, just as before. Restricted camping will be allowed in five or six large tracts of State Trust Land, such as the Lueras Mountains area in GMU 16E and Sierra Grande east of Raton, but not on other lands. Landlocked lands will remain closed, although several commissioners asked about the possibility of closing down hunting on State Trust Lands closed to public access; Game Department officials did not respond. The greatest benefit appears to be that the State Land Office agreed to map and post signs at every access point to all State Trust Lands, and game wardens will be allowed to cut locks on illegally closed gates.

Before the vote, Ramos said those amenities are simply not enough. “The sportsmen of New Mexico deserve more than we’re getting,” he said. Commissioner Elizabeth Ryan said she was willing to support the higher fee, but added, “in the future I’m not willing to go a whole lot further.” Commissioner Bill Montoya said he was “torn” and Dickie Salopek said he favored the lease to ensure that sportsmen will not lose access permanently. But outfitter Jess Rankin spoke for many when he said, “You all are being robbed.”

NMWF Executive Director Garrett VeneKlasen said sportsmen will face the same dilemma next year, with Dunn demanding an even higher fee. “Dunn will continue to extort the Game Department, but the real losers are the sportsmen and wildlife of New Mexico,” he said. “Access fees of $1 million or more will fall on hunters to pay and that robs the Game Department of funding that should be used for wildlife management. We didn’t want to lose access to millions of acres this year, but what message does this send to the future hunters and anglers – it says that bullies can get their way.”

Learn more about the access agreement at upcoming meetings

NMWF is starting a series of sportsmen’s meetings to discuss the state land access lease and other important topics. The first is set for Tuesday, Nov. 24, in Las Vegas, at 7 p.m. at the Elks Lodge. Albuquerque sportsmen are invited to the monthly NMWF meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 9, and Roswell hunters can attend the meeting there on Tuesday, Dec. 15. Look for more details about these meetings, including time and place, in the December newsletter.

After agreeing to spend $1 million a year on access to State Trust Lands, the Game Commission then voted unanimously to reject $900,000 in grant money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that in the past has been used to help manage non-game species, which in turn often greatly benefit the species sportsmen pursue. The vote Thursday leaves hunters and anglers on the hook, financially, for managing hundreds of species.

Since 2002 the Department has qualified for these State Wildlife Grants by submitting an assessment of wildlife and habitats that emphasizes species not typically hunted or fished but “which could decline to the point of potential federal listing as Threatened or Endangered without preemptive conservation actions.” Through an extremely public and inclusive process, NMDGF has drafted a new State Wildlife Action Plan, and hoped the Commission would approve it, thus qualifying for another $900,000 grant. But the Commission balked after hearing a litany of complaints about the plan from the agriculture and oil and gas industries.

Opponents of the plan said it “mixes politics and science,” and said it could be used against them, even though it cannot. Ranchers objected to terms like “uncontrolled grazing,” saying grazing is “always controlled.” Oil and gas representatives said the 36-page document contained “very few facts” and was “anti-business, anti-oil.” Commissioners agreed and jumped on the Department, essentially throwing their own staff and biologists who worked on the plan under the bus in the process. Commissioner Ryan, who is an oil and gas attorney in Roswell, called the plan “the most troubling item on our agenda today” and said she was “thrown for a loop” by the document. Even though NMDGF is mandated by state law to manage and conserve these species, she asked Game and Fish to pare down the list of threatened species from more than 450 to “our top 10.” Commissioner Bill Montoya, a former director of Game and Fish, agreed with Ryan, asking that the plan be edited down so it was “easier to deal with.” Chairman Paul Kienzle noted that “none of us will go to jail if we don’t approve this,” and adding that the Commission could decide whether to apply for the $900,000 grant or not. Commissioners unanimously rejected the new plan.

NMWF Executive Director Garrett VeneKlasen called their failure to approve the State Wildlife Action Plan “appalling.” “This Commission showed today that it is anti-science and anti-government. How can we possibly manage our diverse native wildlife – all wildlife in New Mexico – without having a sense of what’s out there and what threats there are?This decision was sad, but symptomatic of a Game Commission process that is dominated not by sound, peer- reviewed science but by special interests spouting anecdotal speculation. Once again they are setting themselves up to have numerous species placed on the endangered or threatened species list because they refuse to take reasonable, proactive steps to prevent it. And they don’t even need to spend state money to do so.”

In other news, the Commission:


  • Set the deadlines for next year’s draw hunts. The deadline for bear and turkey draw hunts is Feb. 10; the general Big Game Draw deadline is March 23; the deadline for upland game and waterfowl draw hunts is Aug. 23;
  • Agreed to a major change in the way state Wildlife Management Areas and other properties owned by the State Game Commission are managed to make them more useful for non-hunters and anglers. In the future, WMAs will generally be open unless closed and most will have the same rules, although some closures will continue, such as the Valle Vidal elk calving closure. A permit will no longer be required as long as someone in the party has a valid hunting or fishing license.
  • Approved new dates for certain oryx and pronghorn hunts on White Sands Missile Range in response to a timing issue with the old dates;
  • Gave preliminary approval to new rules to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species, such as required inspections for boats coming from out of state, requiring drain plugs to be removed after the boat comes out of a lake and using a boat/trailer seal system to show that a boat has not been used since the last time it was inspected. Final approval is expected in January.
  • Heard an update on changes in the Hunter Education Program to make it easier for students to take a course online (with a mandatory field day for hands-on firearm training). The Department will unveil its new program in coming months.
  • Heard about plans for a new Bluewater Lake fishery management plan that aims for a balance between catfish, rainbow trout and tiger muskies.