Photo of a brown bear cub for the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter website.

By Mary Katherine Ray, Chapter Wildlife Chair

Hopes were high when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed a new Game Commission after eight years of wildlife policies that so often dismissed science and contradicted conservation, especially for carnivorous animals. While some welcome changes are on offer, the new Game Commission is still  composed entirely of hunters. The chair and vice chair have both already had long careers as employees of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.  After several meetings, the allegiances of the new commission have begun to show.

Better policies for cougars

On the positive side, the commission may end the sport trapping of cougars and reduce the extremely high killing quotas that the previous commission enacted with almost no science-based justification. Newly published research using better sampling and improved analysis found cougar density in New Mexico to be much lower than previous estimates. So much so that in cougar zone F, for instance, the quota for female cougars was found to be higher than the entire female cougar population was estimated to be.

Fortunately, hunters have not been able to kill this absurdly high number of cougars and now, at least in some zones, the allowable numbers are being reduced to reflect the results of this study. Legal challenges to cougar management doubtless helped the commission move toward change.

 Bears in the crosshairs

For bears, the outlook is not as favorable. The Department of Game and Fish is recommending no change to the bear quotas. The number of bears allowed to be killed was drastically increased, back in 2011 when the disgraced Jim Lane was department director, based on the evidence that nuisance complaints about bears were up as were the number of road-killed bears. The determination completely overlooked that increases in the number of people and not the number of bears could cause both.

As with cougars, more research has improved our knowledge about bear density in some places, but not about how the bear population in New Mexico is trending. Density studies reflect a moment in time. Even the newest data is now going on 5 years old. The oldest information, which is what NM is basing bear population estimates on in about half the state’s bear-zoning area, is more than 20 years old. How is drought affecting them? What about the very young average age of mortality for so many of the female bears being killed by hunters? Female bears in New Mexico don’t have their first litter of cubs on average until they are between 5 and 6 years old. The average age of the hunted female bear is just over 6. These animals are dying before ever having even one cub. Bears can live up to 30 years. New Mexico Game and Fish and the commission are making assumptions about the bear population that have not been field-tested.

Cheerleading for trapping

The  new Game Commission is also poised to accept some changes to the trapping rules. The Department of Game and Fish, in its presentation about trapping to the Commission, strangely evokes the North American Model of Conservation, though trapping is in direct opposition to the model’s tenet, which strives to abolish markets for wildlife. The inconsistency extends to the position against the trapping of cougars while supporting the trapping of other species such as bobcats.

The department also cites trapping  “Best Management Practices” and proposes to incorporate some of those practices into rule. But these recommendations are not based on unbiased science. Trappers themselves collected the data about traps and the injuries they cause without the participation of animal-protection interests or even the oversight of disinterested parties. The parameters used to judge animal suffering are arbitrary and allow some terrible suffering as acceptable. The whole “best management practices” scheme was in response to the threat of the European Union disallowing import of pelts from trapped animals because of the cruelty. But the devices that the EU sought to prohibit were conveniently found by those involved in the research to be acceptable. On any other stage, the Best Management Practices would be called propaganda designed to make trapping palatable to the public.

New Mexico has very little information on the population trends of the species exploited for fur yet allows their unlimited killing for more than 4 months each year. The Department claims that trapping is a “valuable wildlife management tool.” But nothing is being managed when it comes to recreational and commercial trapping except the financial interests of trappers.

The state doesn’t know where or how many traps are set each year. It doesn’t have a plan for how many animals can be killed without harming their populations. It doesn’t even know how many non-target animals such as bears or javelina are injured or die in traps each year. When pelt prices go up, trapper effort and the number of animals that die to satisfy the market also rise. There is no plan that considers conservation, the needs of wildlife, and the integrity of the places where these creatures live.

NM Game and Fish cheerleads for trapping regardless of the public’s sentiments or the lack of science to justify the killing. The Game Commission chair has repeatedly stated her desire to protect trapping as a legitimate practice.

Public disapproval has nonetheless caused the Department to propose some changes. It is recommending that some areas be closed to trapping: the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, the Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces, 1/2 mile on either side of the road from Taos to the Taos Ski Valley and 1/2 mile on either side of the road from Santa Fe to the Ski Basin. Also a 1/2-mile buffer is being proposed around official trail heads. Trails themselves would still be open to trapping with only a 25-yard setback. That any closures are being proposed is an admission that the public and traps don’t mix. Outside of these areas, hikers and their dogs will still be subject to the dangers of hidden traps, to say nothing of the wildlife in these places.

The comment period for these trapping proposals is still open. Please ask the Game Commission to better protect our wildlife.

New Game Commission, old allegiances