Has New Mexico ‘Privatized’ Its Elk Herd?

Has New Mexico ‘Privatized’ Its Elk Herd?

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation and the New Mexico Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) published a bombshell report last week slamming the state’s Department of Game and Fish for “privatizing elk hunting opportunities.” The conservation and hunting groups claim that the state is favoring landowners, outfitters, and non-resident hunters in how it hands out licenses, and resident public land hunters are getting left out to dry.

The report outlines license allocation data obtained from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish through a public records request. According to the report, the Department stonewalled the request until the state’s Attorney General ordered the records to be made public. The Department claims the delay was due to a conflict in state law between the Inspection of State Records Act and the Public Records Act.

Whatever the reason for the delay, both sides agree on the top-line number: over 35% of the state’s elk licenses end up in the hands of non-resident hunters.

The state officially sets aside only 6% of its licenses for non-residents, but it also runs a program by which landowners can obtain licenses and sell them to hunters and outfitters. Over 75% of those landowner licenses go to non-residents, which is how non-residents end up with over one-third of all elk licenses in the state.

What’s more, 20% of those landowner licenses are “unit-wide.” These tags allow hunters to move outside a landowner’s property and onto public land, where they compete with hunters who have drawn public land tags.

Non-residents usually pay more for licenses, which is why almost every state sets aside a certain percentage of its tags for out-of-state hunters. In fact, the phrase “non-residents pay for residents to hunt” is not uncommon among agency circles. As someone who frequently hunts outside of Montana, I’ve benefited from these systems and am not opposed to out-of-state hunters.

However, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and BHA argue that New Mexico is an outlier among Western states. They claim New Mexico allocates more licenses than other states to non-residents and landowners, and those licenses are lucrative both for the state and the landowners. While residents and non-residents are free to purchase a landowner license from a willing property owner, the report cites one example of an outfitter charging $18,500 for an elk hunt using a landowner license. Most resident public land hunters in New Mexico can’t afford that kind of markup, which is why the New Mexico Wildlife Federation claims the state is “privatizing” elk.

Ryan Darr, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, took issue with the claim that New Mexico is an outlier among Western states. He pointed out that while Arizona limits nonresident licenses to 10%, Colorado’s overall license allocation closely aligns with New Mexico’s. A Colorado Parks and Wildlife bulletin from April of this year reports that for the majority of hunt codes, the proportion of elk and deer licenses allocated to residents is 65%, with 35% allocated to nonresidents.

Of course, the ratio of issued licenses (as opposed to allocated licenses) may be slightly different, but it does demonstrate that at least one other Western state is content with issuing a comparable percentage of its elk licenses to nonresidents.

Jesse Deubel, the Executive Director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, emphasized that he’s not opposed to non-resident hunters or to landowners. But as it currently stands, the system favors those who have the means to pay top-dollar for those landowner tags.

“It’s not even a resident vs. non-resident issue,” he said. “It’s a wealthy vs. non-wealthy issue. People of average means don’t have the ability to enjoy this activity at the same rate that wealthy people do. In Europe, hunting is a rich person’s sport. It shouldn’t be that in New Mexico.”

Deubel says he would like to see the state distribute all licenses through the lottery system. Ninety percent of those tags would be set aside for residents while 10% would be set aside for non-residents. Everyone, including landowners, would put in for the same pool of tags and those would be distributed the same way to everyone. Landowners would then charge for access to hunt their property rather than for licenses.

“You can’t sell something that you don’t own,” Deubel said. “If we had a system that allowed landowners to sell the access to their property, but the tag was distributed through the appropriate democratic process as it’s supposed to be in the North American model of wildlife conservation, then I think we would have a system that would truly be win-win-win. Win for the public, win for the landowners, and win for the wildlife.”

It’s tempting to make this a landowner vs. hunter issue, but Deubel was quick to acknowledge that landowners do critical habitat conservation work, and they need to be rewarded for maintaining elk herds on their properties. They can charge more for licenses than they can for access under the current structure, and they’re simply responding to those incentives.

But while they own the land, they don’t own the elk. Right now, they’re selling licenses for animals that the public owns. Changing that system will require compromise and a lot of hard work, but Deubel and others are hoping this report will get the ball rolling.

Darr voiced a similar sentiment. He encouraged New Mexicans to remember that this report represents only one perspective. The Department has to juggle a variety of stakeholders and “not all stakeholders will like the outcome.” However, he hopes the report “generates conversations among all interests that result in practical solutions to this complex challenge.”

If you live in New Mexico and would like to get involved in those conversations, visit takebackyourelk.com.

For the rest of us, it’s important to remain vigilant. Deubel pointed out that their system wasn’t put in place overnight. It was implemented gradually, with small changes over many years. If you want to make sure your state doesn’t privatize its wildlife, stay on top of proposed changes to your license allocation system and make sure your voice is heard.

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