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In Lobo land, a senator sticks up for coyotes

February 25, 2019

If hunters, trappers and ranchers had an enemies list, state Sen. Jeff Steinborn might be at the top of it.

On Monday, Steinborn is sure to clash with livestock owners and many rural legislators who represent them.

He is to present his Senate Bill 76, which would outlaw contests staged to see who can kill the most coyotes. It has cleared one legislative committee and is on to another.

He also will be pitching a bill that would change the name of the state Department of Game and Fish to the Wildlife Department. Another facet of this proposal, Senate Bill 203, would transform the Game Commission into the Wildlife Commission.

This is not about semantics. Not to Steinborn.

He didn’t like the way the Game Commission operated during the previous eight years, when Republican Gov. Susana Martinez appointed its members.

“The Game Commission had its boot on the neck of endangered species,” said Steinborn, D-Las Cruces.

He said as many as 85 percent of New Mexicans don’t have hunting or fishing licenses, but all have an interest in wildlife. So Steinborn wants state government to stop thinking about thousands of species in terms of how or when they can be hunted.

In concert with his bill for a Wildlife Department, Steinborn also wants to modernize the agency’s mission.

And so he has introduced a third measure, Senate Bill 417. It would rewrite policies that haven’t been updated since 1953.

His bill would junk references to “game” and instead establish wildlife “as a resource for the benefit, use and enjoyment of all New Mexicans, including future generations.”

Steinborn’s bill would confer on the state commission the “authority to protect all species of wildlife.”

As it stands, coyotes are among the species that don’t have state protection. Hunters and trappers are free to kill as many coyotes as they like in any season.

This has led to high-profile contests, such as one that was run by a gun store in Los Lunas. After collecting an entry fee of $50, the store offered prizes of AR-15 rifles to the two-member team that killed the most coyotes.

Steinborn’s bill would ban coyote killing contests conducted for prizes or entertainment. He sees them as bad for the state in many ways.

Aside from the embarrassment of galoots wantonly slaughtering coyotes, Steinborn worries about the contests undermining the natural order. Wildlife biologists who support his bill have testified that the killing contests could actually increase coyote breeding by disrupting the social order of packs.

Critics of the bill say a law to stop the contests would be difficult or impossible to enforce.

Others say the term “killing contests” has inflamed people over a practice used as a legitimate means to protect livestock.

Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, said he had only been aware of “calling contests” in which ranchers organize a group of hunters to save their livestock and even their pets from predatory coyotes.

Plenty of other people like Steinborn’s bill.

A farmer testified for it during its first hearing, saying coyotes keep in check a gopher population that otherwise would mow down crops.

Steinborn, 48, doesn’t spend all his time writing bills about wildlife.

He led the way on legislation for a 470-mile Rio Grande Trail to capitalize on the state’s scenic wonders. One day he hopes it will be almost as much of an attraction as the Appalachian Trail.

Steinborn also has been a relentless critic of the state’s disclosure laws on lobbying. He says they need sunshine, and has introduced a variety of bills to provide it.

He also has tried to reform the system in which governors have unilateral power to select university regents. Cronies and campaign donors can make for inept university leadership, but they often get these plum positions.

Steinborn this session has proposed a constitutional amendment that would codify nominating committees to choose regent nominees. He says better talent can be found this way.

For now, though, wildlife is the order of the day.

In a state that reveres its Lobos, Steinborn will stick up for their disheveled cousin — the coyotes that become prey in contests.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.