By Mary Katherine Ray,
Rio Grande Chapter Wildlife Chair
Bills to prohibit trapping on public land, end killing contests, reform the Game Commission and more did not pass the New Mexico Legislature in a session distracted by other issues and still dominated by political divides.
Here is the rundown for the successes, the incremental progress, the feedback and the disappointments.
Senate Bill 268
Senate Bill 268 to end coyote-killing contests, sponsored by Sens. Jeff Steinborn (D) and Mark Moores (R), got further than it ever has before. It passed all of its committee hearings and the full Senate and was awaiting a vote on the House floor when time ran out.
Citizen advocates filled the committee hearing rooms. When the committee chairs asked to see a show of hands in support of the bill, the number of hands that flew up was heartening and powerful. This phenomenon was gratifyingly repeated over and over at hearings for other wildlife bills. The bill’s opponents included the New Mexico Cattlegrowers, the New Mexico Wool-Growers and the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides. These groups did not concern themselves with the abusive nature of contest killing specifically but instead relayed their scorn for coyotes and insistence that coyotes must be “controlled’ (by which they mean killed) by any and all means possible.
This is contrary to scientific evidence that shows that coyote populations often increase after being significantly reduced because females produce more pups to compensate. Their populations reach equilibrium with stable availability of prey and do not need to be “controlled.” Even so, the bill was not about coyote-hunting. It only addresses killing coyotes in conjunction with a contest. These kill fests reward participants with cash or guns for killing dozens of animals that are then often just dumped.
SB 286 would have prohibited the use of traps and poisons on public land. It had many exceptions, including allowing traps for scientific research, protection of endangered species, ecosystem management and of course to protect human health and safety. This year, for the first time, it started on the Senate side with Senator Pete Campos (D) as its sponsor. The first (and as it turned out, only) committee hearing it had was before Senate Conservation. The room again overflowed with supporters and many stories of encounters with traps. Those in opposition included the same groups, the Cattlegrowers, the Woolgrowers and the Council of Outfitters and Guides, that supported keeping killing contests legal. The dislike of coyotes was again their focus as they expressed their desire to kill as many as possible. Bill supporters told stories of their dogs being trapped, the struggle to remove the device, the pain the trap caused and injuries requiring veterinary treatment and expenses.
Committee members provided good feedback that focused mainly on technical aspects of the bill — primarily the penalties and enforcement. Sen. Bill Soules (D), who is himself a hunter, did express dismay that trappers can kill an unlimited number of animals not for personal use but to sell to the market. He also questioned whether any gross-receipts taxes were being paid on these sales of the public’s wildlife.
Because of the technical questions, the committee chair, Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D), said he wanted the committee to craft a substitute bill to address those issues before moving on a vote. However, no substitute bill emerged, and the time slipped by so that the bill simply faded into dormancy.
However, the sponsor, Sen. Campos, is not letting the issue fade. He is scheduled to appear before the state Game Commission to discuss the future of trapping in New Mexico at the May 11 commission meeting in Clayton, N.M. For updates on the time and place, please visit the state Game and Fish website, www.wildlife.state.nm.us/commission.
HB 254, a bill to reform the Game Commission sponsored by Rep. Matt McQueen (D), passed its first House committee but failed in the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources committee. Both votes were along party lines. (This bill again had the same opponents; the Cattlegrowers, the Woolgrowers and the Council of Outfitters and Guides.)
The Game Commission statute was written in the 1920s and is sorely in need of update to reflect modern values about wildlife and be more fair in the representation of stakeholders. This bill would have divided the seven Game Commission appointments between the governor and the Legislature. In addition to defining the seats for specific user groups such as hunters, non-hunters and ranchers, it would have included a dedicated seat for a wildlife biologist not affiliated with New Mexico Game and Fish.
The only wildlife bill to pass both chambers and make it to the governor’s desk was SB 81, the Wildlife Trafficking Act sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart (D), which will help make it more difficult for traffickers of endangered species’ body parts, such as elephant ivory and rhino horn, to slip into the country through our southern border with Mexico. As of this writing, the governor has not yet signed it.
Had any of the other wildlife bills progressed to the governor’s desk, we acknowledge they may have faced a steep hurdle to get her signature. The next time these bills are introduced, in the 2019 long session, we will have a new governor; hopefully one who is more wildlife-friendly. The entire House is also facing election before then, and we could use more wildlife-friendly legislators to make passage of bills like these through committees more certain as well.
Wildlife advocates have a lot for which to be proud this past session. Thank you to everyone who got up early, traveled to Santa Fe, endured long hours waiting for the wildlife bills to come up, and who called their representatives and senators. Your actions were felt and your presence noticed! Your commitment and determination are just what we will need to bring these bills into law in coming years.