Before she was elected governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged the state’s system of allocating elk licenses was unfair to N.M.’s resident hunters.
But instead of empowering the New Mexico State Game Commission to implement a more equitable system, Lujan Grisham has fallen back on a tired tradition of using unchecked gubernatorial power to preserve the status quo, a system that makes New Mexicans an afterthought in harvesting — and protecting — the wildlife that belongs to them.
This isn’t a new criticism, nor exclusively a Lujan Grisham foible. She’s doing what her predecessors have done with the power given to the office, though her flip-flopping on the state’s system of allocating elk tags is a glaring example of why governance of the state’s wildlife management system is in need of serious reform.
The system is stacked so the only qualification to serve is showing fealty to the governor rather than making independent decisions about a resource you’re entrusted to manage and protect on behalf of the residents of New Mexico. That has to change.
A 2020 legislative audit recommended the game commission make changes to its elk licensing system to be more in line with neighboring states that commonly reserve 90% of all elk licenses for state residents. New Mexico’s “Elk Private Land Use System,” or EPLUS, directs nearly 40% of the state’s elk licenses to private landowners at no charge — raising the specter of an anti-donation clause violation. These elk permit authorizations are then sold on an open market, overwhelmingly to out-of-state hunters who can afford them.
“… Landowners and out-of-state hunters, not New Mexicans and public land hunters, are the beneficiaries of department policies,” the Legislative Finance Committee audit found. Moreover, the current system “seems to go against the legislative intent that 84% of available licenses be offered to New Mexico residents.” In-state residents purchased 74% of elk licenses issued from 2017 to 2019.
The audit findings prompted U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to call for change. “The Department of Game and Fish’s system of allocating elk hunting on public lands is fundamentally flawed and tilted against the resident hunters when compared to other Western states,” he wrote in December 2020.
Yet nothing has happened. Commission Chair Sharon Salazar Hickey said in March the commission won’t consider changes to EPLUS. Why would the commission ignore a nonpartisan recommendation from policy analysts, a call from our senior senator and an inequity that New Mexico hunters have groused about for years?
If history is any indication, it’s because commissioners have little control over their own agenda. Those who have rocked the boat have been shown the door.
In January, the governor removed Jeremy Vesbach from the commission a year before his term ended. Vesbach was vice chair before his removal and was also on the commission’s “Hunt Structure Committee.”
As the New Mexico Wildlife Federation reported, “the committee was charged with looking at the state’s allocation of hunting licenses for elk and other species. After Vesbach’s removal, Salazar Hickey terminated the committee.”
Vesbach, a lifelong professional conservation advocate, said he was not given a reason for removal but his positions on stream access and hunting licenses for public land clash with landowners who contributed to the governor’s election. The Governor’s Office cited “disagreement of mission” as the basis for his dismissal.
The seven commission members are appointed to up to four-year terms by the governor and are supposed to be confirmed by the Senate, though conformations haven’t happened in recent memory. Not more than four members can be from the same political party. Five represent different geographical areas; two are appointed “at large.” At least one is supposed to represent agricultural interests and one conservation interests. They serve at the pleasure of the governor, can be dismissed without cause and bizarrely are not required to have any expertise in wildlife conservation.
Vesbach and Joanna Prukop, two of the most qualified members of the commission, were casualties of this revolving-door arrangement. Prukop, a wildlife biologist who worked 25 years at N.M. Game and Fish, said she believes her position on stream access was the reason her term was not renewed in 2020.
The governor appointed Jal cattle rancher and oilman Gregg Fulfer to the commission on June 17 and ExxonMobil lobbyist Deanna Archuleta, one of her longtime supporters and donors, in March. Two vacancies remain. But, as we’ve said repeatedly, composition of the commission hardly matters under the current setup because anyone who doesn’t play ball can get bounced.
Fixing the problem requires state lawmakers to recognize the troubling dynamics at play and do something about them.
At minimum, lawmakers can craft a bill protecting commissioners from being dismissed for simply doing their jobs. Make the governor select from a pool of candidates who have some expertise in wildlife and land management matters and are vetted by a selection committee.
As for EPLUS, the governor had it right when she responded to a questionnaire from New Mexico Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers before she was elected: “A thorough review of the public and private land systems laws and regulations must be initiated in order to develop an equitable solution that respects New Mexico residents.”
Four years later New Mexico still gives away big-game hunting licenses to private individuals who sell them for big bucks, primarily to out-of-state trophy hunters. Meanwhile, generations of New Mexicans who hunt to fill their freezers and their families’ bellies don’t draw for a license. Again.
And that won’t change until we have a game commission empowered to manage the public’s land and wildlife free from political interference.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.