Big changes and a vast improvement in the Open Gate program could be in store in the near future, according to a report delivered to the State Game Commission last week in Las Cruces. NMDGF Wildlife Management Chief Stewart Liley said the Department is angling to dramatically increase the annual budget in a bid to get more private properties and more species open to the public for hunting, fishing or both.
The Commission also gave a stirring tribute to former Commissioner David Soules, a lifelong Las Cruces hunter, angler and conservationist who died unexpectedly in March, and, after numerous public meetings, unanimously approved changes in the Furbearer, Upland Game and Fisheries Rules.
The meeting opened with a video presentation about the life and legacy of Soules, a physicist who worked at White Sands Missile Range for decades but also was extremely involved in southern New Mexico hunting and conservation issues. He was a longtime member of a number of Las Cruces hunting groups, a board member of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and a lifetime member of BHA. But he was also intimately involved in planning the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. In fact, he and fellow hunter Jim Bates drafted the boundaries based on their decades of hunting experience in the area. Department staff prepared a 10-minute video on his life featuring friends and colleagues, and nearly two dozen others spoke in person, giving a glimpse into his enthusiasm for public lands, his willingness to help others, his ability to find common ground between competing interests and his ferocious curiosity. It was a moving experience for all.
The Open Gate program could grow from a $200,000 budget today to more than $1 million a year, which would allow a dramatic change in the way landowners are compensated for allowing public access and an increase in the number of enrolled properties, Chief Liley told Commissioners. The proposal is still being drafted and will not come up for approval until 2022, but commissioners sounded enthusiastic. Among the ideas tossed out was to add elk and pronghorn hunts on private land through Open Gate, pay bonuses to landowners who convince their neighbors to enroll, and to use technology to have hunters rate properties to help determine value to the public. Prior to the presentation, NM BHA urged the Commission to expand Open Gate and take better advantage of federal grants to help pay for public access to private lands. Expect to see a formal proposal on the issue next year.
The Commission also approved draw application dates for the 2021-22 hunting season: Feb. 9 for bear and turkey; March 16 for elk, deer and other big game; and Aug. 17 for pheasant and sandhill crane.
The next scheduled Commission meeting is Jan. 14. Hopefully it will be fully staffed by then. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham still has not appointed anyone to replace either Commissioner Soules, who died in March, or Commissioner Gail Cramer, who resigned unexpectedly this summer.