A remade Game Commission will boost wildlife

May 12, 2019

Wildlife is essential to New Mexico’s ecology, economy and cultural identity. Ours is the nation’s fourth most biodiverse state. In a day’s drive, one can travel from the alpine peaks of the Southern Rockies in Rio Arriba County to the playas of the Chihuahuan Desert in Eddy County, covering eight distinct ecoregions in between and experiencing the wildlife of all of these environs.

New Mexico is the only state home to both subarctic species like the lynx and subtropical species like the jaguar. Native species make for resilient natural communities and contribute to New Mexico’s reputation as a destination — the Land of Enchantment. The state is poised to highlight our amazing landscapes even more through the newly created Outdoor Recreation Division (“Selling N.M.’s wonders to public,” April 3). Wildlife is essential to our efforts to increase tourism. But native species are being pushed to the brink by climate change, drought, human expansion and a legacy of bad wildlife policy.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is in the process of remaking the New Mexico Game Commission, a citizen body that makes critical wildlife decisions that affect the entire state. This is a major opportunity to reflect the changing attitudes of New Mexicans toward wildlife. New Mexicans who primarily “believe wildlife are part of our social network” are increasing; those who primarily “believe wildlife should be used and managed for human benefit” are decreasing.

History has seen a New Mexico Game Commission dominated by white and Hispanic men, many of whom are big campaign donors or political insiders. Oil and gas, agricultural and hunting interests have far outweighed more selfless interests. Public input has been ignored. It is a standing joke among the public who attend Game Commission meetings regularly that the most vibrant debate is about the schedule for commission meetings. Important wildlife policy conversations have been missing; decisions predetermined.

Game Commission missteps over the last eight years are too numerous to list, but include the radical expansion of cougar trapping, a wildly unpopular stream access rule, increased killing of black bears and the rejection of permits that would aid native wolf recovery. Members have actively participated in abhorrent wildlife killing contests, and one was forced to resign for helping to poach a cougar.

New Mexico has no shortage of qualified citizens who bring experience from a variety of backgrounds and are willing to serve on the commission. New Mexicans want and deserve to have a Game Commission that reflects our state’s diversity. We need commissioners with real scientific credentials and a genuine interest in what’s best for our state’s wildlife. The perspectives of progressive agriculture and nonconsumptive users should be well-represented. Transparency, process and accountability need to be honored.

The new Game Commission should expand its work for nongame species and significantly invest in science and research to lay the groundwork for years of sound wildlife policy to come. We know relatively little about nongame mammals — the state doesn’t have good data on bobcat and fox populations, for example, but trapping of these animals is permitted (even encouraged) with no bag limits. Native otters are still missing from the Gila River. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is formally absent from the effort to recover endangered lobos. The department’s revenue stream is slanted heavily toward out-of-state hunters while other funding sources remain unexplored and untapped.

New Mexico’s native wildlife is a tremendous asset, and there is no shortage of opportunities to help it thrive and, in turn, help New Mexico thrive. Who Lujan Grisham appoints to the Game Commission will go a long way in determining how well we take advantage of these opportunities.

Christopher Smith is the Southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians.