4/11/22 NMDGF Game Commission Recap

New Mexico elk hunters could see big changes including unlimited OTC private land hunts in GMU 34 and a prohibition on muzzleloader sights, while turkey hunters could get a longer season plus a chance to draw Gould’s turkey tags as the State Game Commission considers big game proposals outlined at their meeting in Santa Fe on Monday.

But the biggest surprise of the day was a last-minute effort to revise the Bighorn Rule and potentially give resident New Mexico hunters better access to bighorn tags. At issue is the current regulation which many feel bends state law to ensure that ram tags are available to outfitters and non-residents. Commissioner Roberta Salazar Henry proposed to explore other options in bighorn tag allocation but her motion was defeated by Chairwoman Sharon Salazar Hickey.

The department is in the process of updating all big game rules this year. The work started earlier this year with proposals for bighorn, pronghorn and javelina. On Monday, NMDGF’s Wildlife Management Chief Stewart Liley unveiled preliminary plans for elk, deer, turkey and the exotic species – oryx, ibex and Barbary sheep.

Detailed information on each proposal outlined Monday will be posted soon on the NMDGF website, but several are likely to raise eyebrows among the hunting public, including:

  • All of GMU 34 would go to unlimited over-the-counter private land licenses for elk if the Commission agrees to redesignate the unit as Secondary Management Zone. In addition, NMDGF wants to further increase the GMU 34 cow harvest, either with more tags or an additional hunt;
  • In GMU 36, biologists may propose more mature bull tags or changing MB hunts to either sex. The unit currently has the highest bull/cow ratio in the state and biologists want to bring that ratio down;
  • Because modern muzzleloader hunters are now taking shots up to 1,000 yards, Liley said muzzleloader scopes could be prohibited to reduce their overall efficiency for elk, ibex and perhaps other species. Otherwise, he said, the department is likely to propose fewer licenses or other limits like lumping muzzleloader tags in with rifle tags. Any changes regarding sights would have to be done by amending the Manner and Method Rule, which is separate from the Big Game Rules;
  • NMDGF wants to gradually increase bull size in GMUs 16B, 16C and 16E and is likely to propose lower bull tag numbers in those units;
  • There may also be changes in the Youth Encouragement hunts, including giving hunters over the age of 65 an earlier shot at the tags.

The department has not yet posted detailed information about elk and other big game rules, but hunters should check here in coming days.

In contrast to elk, the proposals for the Deer Rule are relatively minor. Liley said the statewide population is estimated at 80,000 to 100,000 and some herds are showing signs of rebounding, but minimal changes to the rule are expected.

Earlier in the meeting the commission approved NMDGF plans to delist the Gould’s turkey. The population has grown substantially since the species was listed as threatened in 1974 and now is estimated at nearly 300. Assuming the commission approves the delisting later this year, NMDGF wants to establish new entry permit hunts with a one-bird bag limit in GMUs 26 and 27, and to designate them as “once in a lifetime.”

In addition, NMDGF wants to extend the statewide spring turkey season by five days, to May 15.

Changes are also under consideration for Barbary sheep, including combining GMUs 29, 30, 32, 36 and 37 into a single hunt area, and increasing the number of hunts from five to eight but shortening the seasons, in order to spread out hunting pressure.

Oryx hunters could see additional tags for both off-range and once-in-a-lifetime hunts, but ibex hunters could see a decline in licenses in the Florida Mountains and, like elk, a ban on muzzleloaders with scopes.

The proposals for javelina, pronghorn and bighorn have been finalized and are available for public comment – click here. They are due to win final approval at the next meeting.

But as part of the public comment period on bighorn, longtime hunter and former NMBHA board member Brandon Wynn asked the commission to consider revising the tag allocation strategy in a way that would give New Mexico resident hunters more bighorn tags. His argument is that the current rule bends the definition of “hunt code,” which normally defines a specific area and time. Under the existing Bighorn Rule, adopted in 2012, a single bighorn hunt code now covers several months and numerous mountain ranges.

During their discussion, the commissioners and staff agreed with Wynn that the best solution is for the Legislature to rewrite the bighorn law, as other states have done, to specifically allow for a different model of bighorn tag allocation that provides residents, nonresidents and outfitter clients hunt opportunities but does not bend the hunt code law.

Although the state Attorney General’s Office has issued a statement that the current regulation does not break the law, there are enough questions about it that Commissioner Roberta Salazar Henry suggested the commission consider other ways of allocating bighorn tags. She moved to delay approval of the rule by a month or two in order for the department to consider Wynn’s proposal. That still allowed time to approve the Bighorn Rule this summer. “Having the discussion is more important than not having the discussion,” she argued.

Because Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham still has not appointed the two open seats on the commission, and because Commissioner Jimmy Bates was absent, that left just four commissioners to consider the motion. Commissioners Deanna Archuleta and Tirzio Lopez voted with Salazar Henry in favor of taking time to discuss the issue in depth. But Chairwoman Sharon Salazar Hickey voted “no” and the motion failed to get the four votes needed to pass.

The next meeting is set for June 3 in Eagle Nest.


Photo Credit: Taunya Kliewer

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