Rio Arriba County condemns changes to elk-hunting program

February 11, 2019

In 2017, Española resident Leonard Valerio seeded 120 acres of land on a ranch he owns near Chama in hopes of cutting, baling and selling about $20,000 worth of hay.

By spring 2018, the new growth was gone.

Valerio’s land sits on a fertile, fir tree-dotted swath popular with migrating herds of elk. Last year, as they made their way back to Colorado, the elk ate nearly all of his crop.

“They annihilated it,” he said. “They came in and ate every blade of grass on that 120 acres. … I want to see wildlife on my property, but I want to see wildlife to a point where they’re not tearing the place apart.”

And now, as the state Department of Game and Fish makes changes to a program that partially compensates ranchers for wildlife-related losses, Valerio and dozens of landowners in Rio Arriba County fear losing a key revenue stream.

More than 50 ranchers and farmers attended a Rio Arriba County Commission meeting last week to speak in favor of a resolution condemning Game and Fish’s actions, ranchers said. The resolution passed unanimously.

The program, Elk Private Lands Use System, better known by the acronym E-PLUS, doles out big-game hunting permits to landowners affected by elk. Ranchers and farmers can then and sell those permits to hunters for, in some cases, thousands of dollars. With a permit, a hunter can undertake a five-day hunt on the landowner’s property.

The program was started in 2005 as a way to compensate landowners after losses while also rewarding landowners who maintained welcoming conditions for wildlife. Ranchers fear new changes could leave them in the red.

“It’s going to hurt,” said Valerio, who has earned up to $15,000 a year from the permits. “I depend on those permits to keep me afloat for the damages those wildlife do to my property.”

Late last year, landowners already enrolled in the program received a letter informing them they’d have to reapply. The enrollment criteria had changed.

Ranchers fear that change will result in fewer eligible landowners. Small landholders, they said, are likely to be most impacted.

But officials with the Game and Fish Department maintain the change will benefit elk without resulting in a mass reduction in permits — though, agency spokeswoman Tristanna Bickford said, “Some landowners may be affected if they are not providing a meaningful benefit to elk.”

Bickford declined to cite examples.

The change also seems to have given new life to long-lingering gripes among ranchers about their treatment by Game and Fish officials.

The Rio Arriba County resolution cites numerous qualms — among them, that Game and Fish officials have amassed millions of dollars in a damages fund meant to benefit ranchers while ignoring or denying rancher complaints; that they’ve used the fund to pay personnel; and that they intend to promote legislation to do away with or significantly reduce the number of landowner permits.

Bickford denied all those claims and added that landowners had an opportunity to participate in any of nine public meetings held statewide to discuss changes to the E-PLUS program.

“All the landowners who are currently enrolled in the program were contacted by written letter,” she said. “There have been opportunities for them to be a part of this process.”

For Dave Sanchez, a rancher who owns 3,000 acres near Tierra Amarilla and who long has sparred with Game and Fish, those denials fall flat.

This past year, Sanchez said, elk ate two-thirds of his forage.

“If something is destroying two-thirds of your income for the year, you’re gonna go broke,” he said.

He’s sent bills to Game and Fish totaling more than $1 million, he said, and even though the department is required by law to resolve these conflicts, his requests repeatedly have been ignored.

“They are refusing to recognize private property rights and the damage that’s occurring on those properties,” Sanchez said. “They don’t want to deal with it.”

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