New Mexico is blessed with an extraordinary diversity of wildlife. The Land of Enchantment is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, as we rank second in the number of bird species and third in our diversity of reptiles and mammals.
However, these resources face a multitude of threats. As an arid state, New Mexico stands on the front lines of climate change, which means our wildlife and ecosystems are potentially even more susceptible to the mass extinction crisis that is threatening more than one million species across the globe. On top of this, values around our relationship with wildlife have changed. As we consider environmental justice issues like food security and equitable access to the outdoors, ensuring ample opportunities for resident hunters becomes paramount.
New Mexico’s wildlife policies and institutions date back to the late 19th century when the New Mexico Territorial Assembly passed its first game law in 1880. The system of wildlife management that was subsequently developed has served New Mexicans well in the past but requires updating if we are going to face these new challenges.
Senate Bill 312, the New Mexico Wildlife Heritage Act, introduced by Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Rep. Nathan Small, both D-Las Cruces, does just that. It protects our wildlife heritage while offering a vision for the future that will conserve these resources for wildlife advocates, sportsmen and women, and the public at large for generations to come.
New Mexico is one of only 11 states that still manages wildlife under a “game and fish” framework. SB 312 changes the name of the Department of Game and Fish to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, reflecting this modern approach to wildlife management. It directs the state to manage and conserve the public’s wildlife in accordance with the North American Model of Wildlife Management and the Public Trust Doctrine – as a trust resource with intrinsic and ecological value, for the equitable benefit, use, enjoyment and food supply of all New Mexicans, including future generations.
In addition, SB 312 defines “wildlife” to include all non-domestic animal species in New Mexico, not just the subset of species, mostly vertebrates, currently managed by the Department of Game and Fish. It appropriates $1 million to increase the department’s capacity to manage these species and authorizes the newly named New Mexico Wildlife Conservation Commission to manage additional species, as needed, to respond to emerging threats and changing conditions and to ensure these species do not end up as threatened or endangered.
The bill also reforms an unjust and widely unpopular law that allows some landowners to slaughter elk, antelope and other protected wildlife without department permission or oversight because of perceived threats to crops or property.
A key element of the bill will protect and increase the interests of New Mexico’s hunters and anglers as well. It corrects historic inequities in the allocation of hunting opportunities between resident and non-resident hunters, making more than 1,000 additional big game tags available to New Mexican families. It also expands New Mexico’s definition of “waste of game.” Current state law allows hunters to remove only the skin, claws or other body parts from bear, cougar, and javelina, but SB 312 will prohibit leaving edible portions of these species in the field.
The wildlife and wild places that help make us the Land of Enchantment face existential threats that we must tackle head-on. Over the past several years, New Mexico has proven itself a leader by committing to a transition to renewable energy and by making historic investments in education. As other states grapple with some of the same issues, we have an opportunity to demonstrate our bold leadership once again.
We need policies and institutions equipped to meet the challenge of protecting our state’s priceless wildlife resources. The Wildlife Heritage Act is a necessary step toward ensuring New Mexico is a leader in conservation for generations to come.