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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As the State Game Commission weighs whether to ease the rules for trapping cougars on private property, Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn wants that expanded to millions of acres of state trust lands, as well.
He sent a letter last week asking the Department of Game and Fish and the commission to include trust lands in the cougar rules change.
The department has been considering an update to its Bear and Cougar Rule, and has made preliminary proposals.
Final recommendations are expected in July and the Game Commission is to vote on changes in August.
One of the recommendations is to allow private landowners to trap or snare cougars from November through March without getting permits from the department.
Cougars already can be hunted year-round with guns. And private landowners, or those they give permission to, can trap or snare them on private lands if they get permits from the department.
The department initially floated a much more expansive proposal to generally allow trapping as a method of hunting cougars on public lands. That met with significant opposition in a series of public meetings and the department backed off.
Opponents said traps would be dangerous for hikers, pets and non-target wildlife, and that trapping is cruel and archaic.
“State trust land is not ‘public land’ and is not accessible by the general public unless permitted by my office,” Dunn wrote in a June 12 letter to the department and the commission.
The Land Office controls over 9 million acres of trust land, of which about 8.8 million acres is covered by grazing leases, according to the department. “Conservation of our natural resources while protecting the interests of our grazing lessees is imperative to my mission of maximizing revenue for our beneficiaries, including the public schools of New Mexico,” Dunn wrote.
“Given the State Land Office’s wholly different mission from federal land management agencies, state trust lands should be included in the cougar trapping allowance, thus allowing my lessees to manage their leased lands in a manner that is in the best interest of the trust,” he said.
Dunn sent the letter the day before the Game Commission met in Taos. Department of Game and Fish Director Alexandra Sandoval said at the meeting the department hadn’t had an opportunity to vet the proposal, but that it was “certainly something that’s up for discussion.”
Dunn’s request has the support of the New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau, which views grazing leases as private property rights.
“Owners of state land leases should enjoy the same freedoms they do on private property as it relates to the issue of trapping,” the bureau’s CEO, Chad Smith, told the Journal.
While the department’s proposal would change the “sport harvest” rule, Smith said it would help farmers and ranchers protect their livestock.
“Ultimately, it’s predator control. … You’re still taking those animals out of the population,” he said.
The Sierra Club’s Mary Katherine Ray said the proposal appears to give grazing permittees the final authority on cougar trapping, which is inconsistent with other policies.
“As far as I can tell, there’s nothing else in state land access that the permittee has the final say on, except overnight camping,” said Ray, the wildlife chair for the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter.
Ray also said Dunn’s proposal is at odds with other uses of state land and with wildlife conservation. Traps on state lands are “still going to be just as indiscriminate … and as cruel and injurious as they are anywhere,” she said.
There was an unsuccessful move in this year’s legislative session to remove cougars entirely from the protection of the Department of Game and Fish, effectively treating them like coyotes or skunks. The department would have no longer regulated their hunting or monitored and managed their population, under the proposal.
Former Game and Fish Department Director Jim Lane spearheaded that effort. He was subsequently hired by Dunn and is now assistant commissioner of the Land Office’s surface resources division.