LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Tim Severns doesn’t let his two children, ages 9 and 11, play in the front yard.
Valley Drive is all that separates the family’s home from the Rio Grande three miles north of Shalem Colony Trail, and bullets from people illegally hunting and shooting along the river’s banks have hit the house more than once.
The federal International Boundary & Water Commission is considering a proposal to allow bird hunting on certain areas along the Rio Grande, including just north of Las Cruces between Shalem Colony Trail and Leasburg Dam State Park.
Though it’s one of three areas the agency is considering, the stretch along Valley Drive is the most contentious as residents like Severns say the proposal would threaten the people, homes and businesses in the area.
“We’re all in danger if it’s opened up,” Severns said. “… There’s really a no-win for people in this area.”
Shooters and hunters already use the land, and the IBWC thought it would be better to formalize which areas are appropriate and inappropriate for hunting.
The agency only intends to allow bird hunting, not game hunting or target shooting, said Sheryl Franklin, operations and maintenance division chief at IBWC.
But residents worry permitting hunting, which already occurs in the area though it’s currently illegal, would lead to more illegal shooting, bullet holes and dangers — despite state law prohibiting shooting within 150 yards of an inhabited building without the owner’s permission.
“You give people an inch and they take a mile,” said Linda Duval, who lives across the river from Severns.
Allowing hunting may increase the number of shooters who use the Rio for unauthorized purposes, Franklin said. The agency has no enforcement authority, and relies on local sheriff’s departments to reinforce regulations.
The IBWC plans to reduce illegal shooting in the area through signs and coordination with law enforcement, Franklin said.
“Anyone firing high caliber rifles, for example, would be subject to appropriate action by the Sheriff or NM Game and Fish wardens, but it may happen that they come to the area since others are shooting,” she said.
‘Right through a person’
Valley Drive residents estimate they call the sheriff’s department about illegal shots in the area every other week.
The roofs of the two houses on the Duvals’ property barely peek over the trees and bushes lining the Rio’s west bank. The trees drown all other signs of life on the property, which the family has owned since 1936.
Their cattle and second-story windows have been shot, Duval said. A neighbor’s car was “peppered” with bullets.
Severns points to the hole a rifle bullet left when it went through his garage wall, bounced off the garage door’s steel post and plopped on top of his vehicle. Though the IBWC proposal wouldn’t permit the high-caliber shot that went through Severns’ house, he expects the occurrence to become more common if hunting is approved.
State Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, has stopped by to talk with the residents. He looks at the bullet hole in Severns’ wall. It aligns perfectly with the center of his head.
“What if it had hit a semi(truck) or a school bus?” Duval asks.
“It’s going to go right through a window,” McCamley says.
“It’s going to go right through a person,” Severns adds.
The three areas where hunting are being considered are “rural areas,” according to the IBWC’s environmental assessment of the proposal.
But residents between Shalem Colony Trail and Leasburg Dam say their area is anything but, pointing out the dozens of homes, farms and businesses near the river.
“The biggest oversight are the homes, the livestock, the business,” Severns said. “It completely overlooks the people that are out here.”
Many of the residents are hunters and sharpshooters themselves. They say they’re not against guns; they’re in favor of allowing hunting in other areas along the Rio, as long as there’s no impact on homes and businesses.
They talk about the state law that prohibits shooting within 150 yards of an occupied residence.
“What about nearness to a major thoroughfare?” McCamley asks, pointing to Valley Drive.
School buses and trucks pass along Valley Drive each day, headed into town and to East Picacho Elementary School.
“They think it’s unpopulated,” Duval said. “They have no clue.”
Hunter Jim Bates, from the Southwest Consolidated Sportsmen coalition, says he understands the residents’ safety concerns. Opening the Shalem Colony area to shooting may not be worth it if residences are within 150 yards along most of that stretch of river, de facto inhibiting shooting, he said.
But, no matter the regulations, irresponsible shooters will shoot illegally along the Rio, said Bates, who is in favor of the proposal.
“You can make all the regulations that you want to, but when you start closing areas off that legally can be used by sportsmen … then all you’re doing is penalizing the responsible, honest guys that area already adhering to the regulations,” he said.
“You don’t achieve better enforcement by excluding responsible individuals,” he added. “… That is the fallacy of ‘Let’s close these areas off.'”
Hunters would be required to follow all licensing requirements and bag limits, as well as season dates. The IBWC would place and empty trash bins and post signs urging shooters to pick up their brass and abide by regulations.
The environmental assessment found there would be little to no impact on wildlife, cultural sites and water and air quality. Noise pollution may be “adverse” for residents and livestock, but the effects are expected to be minimal.
The agency concluded “There are no anticipated irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources in the Allowed Hunting Alternative.”
Public comments are accepted on the proposal through Aug. 23.
Franklin urged respondents to offer specific recommendations on the plans and explaining why or why not.
“Give us something to work with,” she said. “That’s better than just saying, ‘I don’t think you should allow hunting here.'”
The agency can’t have a plan of action until public comment has closed, Franklin said.
The IBWC may “reduce, relocate or remove” areas from consideration, she said.
“We’ll revise our proposal as appropriate,” she said.
A decision will likely be released at the end of September, but won’t take effect until the end of October.
“The IBWC is trying to exercise good stewardship and be responsible to the needs, requirements and desires of all the public,” she said. “… I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to make someone’s life miserable.’ We’re trying to balance those competing desires.”
If the proposal passes and hunting is allowed north of Shalem Colony, there’s not much Severns can do, he says, with the bullet that flew through his garage in his hand.
“I could build a wall, but what would that do?”