elk calf Photo courtesy Game and Fish

By Nathan Brown, Santa Fe New Mexican

Two bills to make big changes to wildlife management in New Mexico got their first hearing in a House committee earlier this month.

House Bill 183, which would abolish the Game and Fish Department and turn it into a division within the Energy, Mineral and Natural Resources Department, stalled on a 5-5 vote, with one Democrat joining the Republicans to oppose it. However, House Bill 184, which would change the way seats are allocated on the State Game Commission by getting rid of the current system of districts and creating seats for specific groups such as conservationists and hunters, made it out of the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on a 6-3 vote.

Committee Chairman Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, is sponsoring both bills. He and other supporters pitched them as measures to create a better-run and less politicized department.

Underlying much of the discussion was a divide between environmentalists who want to see the department move toward a more species preservation-centric model of wildlife management versus more conservative people in rural areas who worry changes would dilute the department’s traditional hunting and fishing focus. 

“While the Game Commission’s history is rooted in promoting hunting and fishing, there are many New Mexicans who enjoy wildlife through non-consumptive enjoyment,” said Deborah Condit, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of Animal Protection Voters.

Others feared the proposed changes would give rural areas less of a say.

“Hunting and fishing in New Mexico commands a great deal of passion, and under the current system there is, I would say, immediate political accountability for policies that move in the direction contrary to the folks who are primary beneficiaries of that regulation,” said Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs.

The State Game Commission currently consists of two at-large members and five appointed to represent different regions of the state. However, the commission has been down to four members since last year. The turnover during Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first term has led to some consternation from the conservation community, who viewed former commissioners Joanna Prukop and Jeremy Vesbach as friendly to their views and worried a couple of the commissioners Lujan Grisham appointed to replace them were too close to the oil and gas industries. Commission Chair Deanna Archuleta also resigned last week citing other commitments. That leaves the commission without a quorum of members to conduct business.

HB 184 would keep a seven-member commission, but with one from each congressional district, plus a rancher or farmer, a conservationist, a hunter or angler and a scientist. The three members representing different congressional districts would all have to come from different counties; no more than four of the six non-scientist members could come from the same political party.

Commissioners would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate for six-year terms, as opposed to four currently. They could not be removed “except for incompetence, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office,” with the state Supreme Court given oversight over removals.

“This bill would insulate the commission from political whims and add stability to the commission,” Smith said.

Michael Sloane, the current Game and Fish director, spoke against both bills. Sloane said he feared appointing commissioners by congressional district instead of region could lead to less representation for rural areas than under the the current system. As for HB 183, Sloane worried turning his department into a division would reduce the people’s input by putting all the power in the hands of the executive branch instead of a separate commission representing different parts of the state.

“I think you end up with a loss of transparency [and] a loss of representation,” he said.

While neither bill makes any changes to Game and Fish’s mission, just its management structure, McQueen said there have been discussions of that. Representatives of environmental groups and some Democrats seemed to like the idea of a department that focused on wildlife protection, not just hunting and fishing.

McQueen said changing the department’s responsibilities will require either general fund money or other dedicated revenue streams. Currently, he said, the department focuses on hunting and fishing because those are the people whose fees finance it.

“If we want to have a wildlife agency that addresses non-game species and other activities like that, they need a separate source of funding to [pay for] those activities,” McQueen said.

Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, opposed both bills like the rest of the Republicans, but that doesn’t mean he’s happy with the department. He said Game and Fish isn’t doing enough to help the ranchers who have been “mistreated and abused,” who help take care of wildlife and don’t get help from the department when elk tear down their fences. Townsend said he would support Sloane for now, but warned he would work with his “friend from Santa Fe” to address his concerns if Sloane doesn’t do something about them quickly.

“We have problems in New Mexico, and right now you’re on the point of the spear,” Townsend told him.