March 27, 2009
Killing crop-eating wildlife still legal
By DEBORAH BAKER Associated Press Writer
Gunning down elk or antelope that are chewing on crops remains legal in New Mexico, after a bill putting a halt to the practice died in the Legislature.
It was the latest attempt to tackle a problem that has had ranchers, wildlife groups and state officials tied in knots for decades.
"I am not done with this issue," said Gov. Bill Richardson, who backed legislation that died on the House floor when the 60-day session ended March 21.
The governor said the arbitrary killing of wildlife is unacceptable, and he'll push a bill again next year.
Landowners have long complained about wildlife overrunning private property and destroying hay and other crops.
A dozen years ago, Democratic Sen. Tim Jennings, a Roswell sheep rancher, got a provision tacked on to state law allowing landowners to kill wildlife that pose an immediate threat to crops.
Since then, several high-profile incidents have caught the attention of the public.
A Cimarron-area rancher last year killed or wounded more than three dozen pronghorn antelope with a shotgun because they had been eating his winter wheat.
"We're absolutely concerned that before we can finally get this bill fixed, we'll see more of these wasteful slaughters of wildlife," said Jeremy Vesbach, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
This year, proponents of overturning the so-called Jennings law tried a new approach in their legislation: compensation from the state for landowners who lose crops to wildlife.
"That was a huge step forward," said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, which supported the bill.
"We believe in private property rights but we all appreciate wildlife, and it's just trying to find that balance that works for people," she said.
The bill would have allowed the killing of predators — bears, cougars or bobcats — only if the animals were threatening humans, livestock or pets.
It had broad-based support and a pretty good head of steam, clearing the Senate and its first House committee.
But it got delayed leaving its final committee, House Judiciary. The panel approved it the Thursday night before the session ended, but by the time it got on the calendar for a vote by the full House, it was Saturday morning.
It wasn't voted on by the time the session ended at noon.
"We literally just ran out of time," said Department of Game and Fish Director Tod Stevenson, whose agency lobbied for the bill.
House Judiciary Chairman Al Park, D-Albuquerque, says there was another consideration. A lawmaker — he wouldn't say who — didn't like the bill and had threatened to slow debate if it were brought up. That could have jeopardized other legislation.
"It is disappointing, because it was a really good bill," Park said.
Jennings, who is now president pro tem of the Senate, tried unsuccessfully to get the bill amended to include compensation not just for cultivated crops, but for grass on range land.
Rio Arriba County rancher David Sanchez said that would have improved the bill, although he favored keeping the law as it is.
"We just can't afford for these populations ... to come in and destroy our livelihood," said Sanchez, who has long complained that the Game and Fish Department isn't responsive enough to depredation complaints from northern New Mexico ranchers.
Six years ago, he killed 19 elk on a ranch he managed after the owner obtained a permit for the killings. Richardson booted him off the state Livestock Board and State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons removed him from an agricultural advisory board.
Sanchez said he also didn't like the proposed hike in a hunting fee that would have shored up the fund from which compensation would have been paid.
Stevenson said the bill would have given his agency a way to be more responsive to landowners, through compensation.
"I think you'll see a real continued effort on everybody's part to figure out what we can do other than what's on the books right now," he said.
On the Net:
New Mexico Game and Fish Department: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/