4/19/24 NM State Game Commission Recap

The State Game Commission is finally up to full membership, though with half the commissioners either brand new or relatively new to the job, their April meeting in Silver City was more about bringing them up to speed than accomplishing any business.

Since the death of Commissioner David Soules in 2021, the governor’s dismissal of Commissioner Jeremy Vesbach and the subsequent resignation of Commissioner Roberta Salazar Henry, the seven-member commission has been far short of full. At times it did not even have enough bodies to constitute a quorum. But in March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made two appointments that bring the commission to full strength.

The new commissioners are Sabrina Pack of Grant County, a marketing specialist with strong ties to ranching in the area, according to the Department of Game and Fish, and Robert Stump, the hunting director for Trout Stalker Ranch in Chama – one of the businesses most vociferously opposed to public stream access in New Mexico.

The commissioners toured the department’s Glenwood Hatchery and Bill Evans Lake the afternoon before the Friday meeting. When they met in Silver City, they heard overviews of each of the agency’s seven divisions – what they do, how many employees they have, how much they spend, etc.

Then came an overview of the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program, another overview of the Fisheries Division, and – of the greatest interest to many who either drove to Silver City or tuned in online – an overview of the EPLUS program.

Stewart Liley spelled out the history of the state’s private land elk program, including the 2018 reforms that NMBHA largely applauded at the time. The revisions approved six years ago did much to bring EPLUS into the 21st century, such as requiring participating landowners to provide meaningful benefit to elk and grading that benefit on a standard scale (a tool that hadn’t previously existed). Because of the new stiffer requirements to qualify for elk tags, some 700 ranches were dropped from the program.

However, because of the way elk are managed in New Mexico, all the tags once received by those 700 ranches went to other landowners – none went into the public draw.

During the public comment period, numerous landowners and others who have come to rely on the free elk tags they receive praised EPLUS, and at least one called it the envy of private landowners throughout the West.

But numerous hunters and hunting organizations said EPLUS has not lived up to the goals set by NMDGF, including that it “give hunters and landowners a way to work together to effectively manage and hunt elk on private lands.”

Speaking on behalf of NMBHA, former Chapter Chairman Joel Gay told the commissioners that EPLUS has “become a way for hunters to bypass the Big Game Draw and simply buy an elk hunt…. We call that ‘buying your way to the front of the line.’”

He urged the Commission to take another run at improving EPLUS, and this time to make changes that put more tags in the hands of DIY and resident elk hunters. “It is past time for the Game Commission,” he said, “to step up and reform our elk hunting program on behalf of thousands of New Mexico hunters, our children and grandchildren.”

Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and a partner of NMBHA in the “Take Back Our Elk” initiative, unveiled new information that shows New Mexico far behind other western states in the percentage of elk tags that go its state residents. A third of all elk licenses go directly to EPLUS ranchers, and many ranches also get unlimited over-the-counter tags. In addition, state law sets aside 10 percent of many elk hunts in the public draw for those who agree to hire a NM outfitter. The result, he said, is an unfair system that needs reform.

“All across the West, private landowners provide habitat to public wildlife. We’re not unique in that sense,” he said. “Where we are unique, though, is how we issue both the share and the number of transferable public elk authorizations to private interests.”

The commissioners listened but had little to say. Hunters are urged to contact the commissioner from their area and ask them to put EPLUS reform on the front burner, with the goal of giving New Mexico resident hunters a fair share of the elk resources of our state. (Click here to see a list of the commissioners and their contact information.) You can also view the EPLUS overview presentation given by Wildlife Management Division Chief Stuart Liley here

About Joel Gay

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