By Mary Katherine Ray, Rio Grande Chapter Wildlife chair
Whether deciding about wolves, bears or cougars, the New Mexico state Game Commission has increasingly revealed its disregard for our native carnivores. Earlier this year, the seven-member board appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez, voted to deny the privately owned Ladder Ranch the permit needed to hold Mexican gray wolves awaiting release into the wild at the facility built and previously used for this purpose.
And then New Mexico Game and Fish, the state agency that carries out wildlife policy and which is overseen by the Game Commission, denied the Fish and Wildlife Service permit to release wolves into the wild into New Mexico.
In early summer, New Mexico Game and Fish began the process of reviewing the rules governing the hunting of bears and cougars; a process undertaken every four years. Under this Game Commission, the outcome was disheartening if predictable.
Four years ago, the bear quotas, or number of bears that hunters are allowed to kill, were significantly increased. Hunters responded with gusto, killing nearly double the number of bears in the following years than previously. But NM Game and Fish wanted to kill even more. To justify raising the quotas again in 2015, the agency expanded the area on the map that it considers to be primary bear habitat by 35 percent without any ground surveys to see if bears are really occupying these new areas in the densities asserted.
The agency also claimed that a new bear population study using hair snares and DNA analysis to identify individual bears indicated bear densities are higher than previously thought. But this population study has not been published and the information made available to the public show that the agency cherry-picked estimated densities from the study data that could substantially overestimate bear numbers. The net result is that NM Game and Fish proposed to raise the number bears that hunters can kill each year by another 26 percent to 804 bears.
The proposal that garnered the most attention was that to allow mountain lions to be trapped and killed in brutal leg-hold traps and wire foot snares for fun and profit. In 2011, the cougar quotas were also dramatically raised. The quotas are so high now that hunters are not killing enough cougars to reach them. Even New Mexico Game and Fish concedes that the cougar population size is not known. No new credible cougar population studies justify the existing cougar quotas, but it is lot easier to trap a cougar than hunt one. If you are bent on killing more, indiscriminate trapping is the logical proposal.
New Mexico Game and Fish received thousands of comments in opposition to the bear and cougar rule proposals. Opposition was strong enough that public lands were removed from consideration for cougar trapping. Then Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn requested that cougar trapping be allowed on State Trust Land. By the time of the hearing, State Trust Lands were incorporated back into the cougar-trapping proposal along with private lands. Private and state trust land comprise three quarters of the land area in New Mexico.
The Game commissioners are all hunters. Two are Safari Club members, just like the dentist who killed Cecil the lion. Four are National Rifle Association members. Three have ties to agriculture. Two are lawyers; one specializing in representing the oil and gas industry and one in property-rights cases. None are scientists. For the more than 500,000 wildlife-watchers in New Mexico who don’t hunt but care about wildlife conservation, there is zero representation on the Game Commission.
When the discussion began about the bear and cougar proposals, one of the commissioners made a motion to adopt the rules even before any public testimony. Then the Commission chair announced that public testimony would be limited to 1 hour — half for supporters of the proposal and half for opponents, even though the proportion in the room was greatly skewed to the latter. Perhaps no amount of public testimony would have mattered. There was minimal discussion among commissioners before the unanimous vote to adopt the rules one hour later.
In response, our Sierra Club chapter issued an email plea to you, our members and supporters to help fund a radio and online ad campaign. We’re asking people who care about bears and cougars as important to nature to send a message to Gov. Martinez urging that she ask her Game Commissioners to reverse its reckless decision. To be sure, it’s a long shot, but in the process, let’s make sure that the public knows these horrible decisions regarding wildlife policy are being made by the appointees of the governor, and that electons have consequences for nature, too.
At the Sept. 29 meeting, the Game Commission continued its anti-carnivore policy by unanimously voting to deny the Fish and Wildlife Service permission to release endangered Mexican wolves into the wild. Despite the attendance of a large crowd of wolf and carnivore supporters, the commission ignored public sentiment, federal and state laws that mandate recovery of endangered species and accepted wildlife science about the importance of wolves to the integrity of ecosystems.
All New Mexicans, and all Americans, have a stake in recovering endangered species. The ball is now in the Department of Interior’s court. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to cooperate with states regarding recovery of endangered species, but if the state refuses to cooperate, the Endangered Species Act still must be upheld.