By Mary Katherine Ray, Chapter Wildlife Chair
Last November, a majority of Republicans were elected to the state House of Representatives, turning leadership of the House over to the Republican Party for the first time in 60 years. The consequences were not good for wildlife. Every single bill on the subject of wildlife had to go through the House Agriculture Committee, which became the House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife committee when the new leadership reorganized and shuffled the committee structure. Placing wildlife issues under the control of agriculture interests was not unlike placing hens under the control of foxes.
The bill to end coyote-killing contests, where people compete to rack up a high body count of coyotes to win cash and prizes (and sometimes to kill the largest adult coyote or smallest coyote puppy), started in the Senate, sponsored by Republican Mark Moores. It sailed through, passing its two committees and the Senate floor handily by a vote of 27-13. It truly had bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jeff Steinborn in the House. But in the House Ag, Water and Wildlife Committee, the reverse happened and only two members, Democrats Rep. Bill McCamley and Rep. Bobby Gonzales, voted for it.
The bill to end the use of traps and poisons on public land, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Gonzales, was killed by the same committee on the same day with the same 8-2 vote. The hearing room was packed — with citizens whose dogs had been trapped, with hikers, hunters, teachers, veterinarians and wildlife enthusiasts, all supporting the bill. But committee chair Rep. Candy Ezzell, a rancher from Roswell, chose this day to wear what appeared to be coyote-fur boots just in case the anti-carnivore message wasn’t clear enough.
Ag, Water and Wildlife also approved a bill to remove all protections from mountain lions, which would have allowed them to be shot and trapped in any number, at any time. It is currently not legal to set traps for the sport killing of mountain lions, and there are quotas and a bag limit imposed by New Mexico Game and Fish (although arguably they are too high). But in an about-face illustrating how out of step the Agriculture committee is, the bill was killed in the next committee, House Regulatory and Public Affairs, with a unanimous vote from members of both parties.
House Memorial 117, a measure that was assigned only to the House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee before heading to the House floor, called on the governor to “denounce” Mexican wolf recovery and to demand that the U.S. Department of Interior turn wolf management over to the state. At the committee hearing, bill sponsor and committee member Republican Rep. Andy Nuñez was asked by Rep. McCamley how many wolves he thought would be a good number for New Mexico, Rep. Nuñez replied “zero.”
Clearly this memorial was about facilitating the extermination of our wolves. HM 117 was in the queue to be heard on the House floor when the session ended, so it never reached a final vote. The Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee also passed a bill to give authority to the state over lesser prairie chickens, another threatened species, and forbid the impairment of oil and gas exploration even if at odds with protecting this imperiled bird. This bill did not get past the House Judiciary Committee, so the Ag, Water and Wildlife Committee passed a memorial that asked the State Land Commissioner, currently a Republican, to work to delist lesser prairie chickens and other listed species on state trust land. That would include the Mexican wolf. This memorial passed the House floor on a party-line vote. No Republican voted against it, but many were absent and did not vote.
The Ag, Water and Wildlife Committee showed itself to be extreme and at odds with most New Mexicans by how its majority voted on wildlife issues compared with how other committees voted and how many citizens showed up with opposing views. The wishes of an extreme special interest should not be held higher than those of all others. If this committee persists with its hostility to wildlife, the outlook, especially for carnivores and endangered species, will be bleak. Elections have consequences, and even though there are wildlife champions in the Republican Party, turning over the leadership effectively muzzled them and all wildlife supporters.
There will be an election before the next long session in 2017. Every legislator will be on the ballot. When you vote (not if!), please don’t forget the injustice of having agriculture interests in charge of wildlife. That is a consequence of the last election. Let it not be a lasting one.
Featured photo by Alan Vernon