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The true value of hunting license fees

By Jim RatchfordMay 27, 2019

It’s about the money. The effects of hunting on wildlife in New Mexico are counterintuitive. The best article I’ve read on the subject was in Audubon magazine a few years ago. It criticizes state game and fish departments for not educating the public on the importance of fees from licensed hunting for the existence of wildlife populations in states such as New Mexico.

This reality conflicts with my friends who don’t want to see any animals killed. It’s hard to understand how the wild creatures they are viewing are so dependent on hunting license money.

The so-called “game” animals weren’t always here. They were extirpated from the state at the end of the 19th century by unregulated meat hunting. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department was created in the early 20th century to control hunting and repopulate wildlife like elk and rocky mountain big horn sheep by hauling them from Yellowstone. State Game and Fish is not supported by tax money. It’s supported from hunting and fishing license fees.

One of the most important functions of the Game and Fish Department is law enforcement. The biggest threat to our wildlife, besides loss of habitat, is illegal hunting, especially commercial hunting like selling wildlife parts for Chinese medicine. A poor country boy can make a lot of money by selling black bear gallbladders ($10,000), elk antlers in velvet and other wildlife parts. An outfitter can make good money taking people on illegal hunts. There are still people who will shoot from a vehicle with a spotlight and wipe out an entire herd of radio collared elk or desert bighorn. There was at least one example I know of where a rancher was accused of trapping wild elk, hauling them off in cattle trucks and selling them in Canada. The enforcement activities in the wildlife wars are second only to the drug wars. It requires professional, specialized law enforcement game wardens.

The benefit to the nonhunting public of the hunting license fees is that they now get to see huge numbers of many species that were once wiped out and could be again. A typical hunter can spend hundreds of dollars on license fees, draw permits and habitat stamps in a year. Places such as the Edward Sargent Wildlife Area near Chama were made possible by funds from hunting licenses and taxes on firearms and ammunition. Except in the spring when cow elk are giving birth and a few days of hunting bulls for a very few lottery winners in the fall, it’s open all year to the public. We now have large populations of elk and rocky bighorn sheep in our wilderness areas. A few years ago, a director sold a permit to hunt one bighorn for $50,000. The money was used to buy desert bighorn habitat.

New Mexico Game and Fish also protects and nurtures nongame species like the peregrine falcon and the black-footed ferret. That comes from hunting license money.

Until the time when wildlife law enforcement is transferred to the state police, and New Mexico taxpayers want to add tens of millions of dollars to its budget, our wildlife must be protected by hunting license money. Even that would still not stop hunting in a state where for many people, the opening day of elk season is more important than Christmas and Thanksgiving all in one.

Jim Ratchford spent a few years working as a part-time packer for New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and hanging out with wildlife biologists and law enforcement. He lives in Cerrillos.

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