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Wildlife management overhaul stalls on tie vote


Legislation to dramatically overhaul wildlife management in New Mexico proved to be too big not to fail.

Senate Bill 312, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Rep. Nathan Small, both D-Las Cruces, failed to get out of the Senate Conservation Committee on a 6-6 tie vote Tuesday, Feb. 23. Committee members on both sides of the vote said there were parts of the bill they liked, and parts they didn’t like.

“I hate bills like this,” said Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces. “I don’t think we get the best laws, instead of debating these as individual issues.”

Soules ended up voting in support of the bill, but committee chair Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, cast what turned out to be the deciding “no” vote, after first trying to solicit a vote from Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who had been in the virtual meeting earlier but missed the vote.

“My district is in parts of six counties, and it is all rural,” Stefanics said. “In this case, I am going to have to support my constituents.”

The massive piece of legislation would have made numerous changes to wildlife management in New Mexico, some philosophical and others more detailed and technical.

It started by renaming the state Department of Game and Fish to the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the State Game Commission to the State Wildlife Conservation Commission. It would have also changed the focus of those commissions from one now based primarily on hunting and fishing to the conservation of wildlife as a public trust. 

The bill would also have expanded the authority of the new Wildlife Conservation Commission to include all species, allowing them to pass new rules for their protection as needed.

It would have restricted the ability of landowners to kill an animal on private property that poses an immediate threat of damage to property.

It would have added bear, cougar and javelina to the species that hunters would be required to remove from the field after shooting. It would have also required a reasonable attempt to track wounded animals.

It would have removed an existing provision that requires 10 percent of draw licenses to be set aside for hunters who contract with a professional outfitter and would have increased the minimum percentage of licenses that must be issued to state residents from 84 percent to 90 percent.

And, it would have changed factors the commission must consider in setting rules for the taking of fur-bearing animals, replacing economic considerations with conservation.

“If this were three different bills, I would probably vote for two of them,” said Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, who voted “no” on the bill. His primary concern, and that of other opponents, was the impact the bill would have on guides and outfitters.

“That change in permits is going to devastate all of those guides. If you take 40 percent out of their revenue, it has to,” Neville said. “I don’t think people ought to leave their carcass laying out in the hills. That part of the bill doesn’t bother me. And the name change doesn’t bother me. But if we’re changing long-standing traditions that have established these businesses, it does concern me a great deal.”

Tom Klumker, owner of San Francisco River Outfitters in Glenwood, New Mexico, told lawmakers during the public comment segment on the bill that his company has been offering guide services in the Gila Wilderness for 34 years.

“This bill affects myself and my family dramatically, impacting our ability to draw enough hunters to stay in business.” he said. “This is a family operation that depends on the present draw system to draw enough public-land hunting permits to allow us to operate.”

Small said the bill would only impact permits on public lands, and that state residents who draw licenses would still have the option to use the services of a guide. And, he said there would still be enough permits for the outfitters.

“This equalizes the opportunities for New Mexicans to hunt in New Mexico and not be at a disadvantage when it comes to drawing, as they currently are,” he said.

Small said studies show local hunters contribute more to the economy because they buy all of their weapons and gear in the state.

The other opposition to the bill came from landowners who said restrictions on their right to kill animals that are threatening their property would be a violation of a previous court order.

Stefanics joined with the three Republicans on the committee in voting against the bill. Under the rules of the Legislature, a bill needs a majority “do pass” vote to advance out of the committee. A tie leaves the bill stranded.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.