Thursday, April 24, 2008

bad apples and double standards

I am, and always have been, a suburban recreational user of outdoor resources. I hunt, fish, hike, backpack, cut a little wood and earn no income from public lands. Nor do I depend upon a chunk of private land to support me or to produce anything. Nonetheless, I recognize the important role of ranches in providing large blocks of habitat to wildlife. I'm also aware of the folks who make a living off of their land, whether through farming, grazing, timbering, or combinations of all of those. I've talked to ranchers who take great pride in their efforts as stewards of the land and I've read countless essays and articles extolling the virtues of private landholders in that respect. For that matter, I'm fortunate to have been allowed access to some beautiful and well kept pieces of private land.

On public or private land, as a hunter, I'm only too conscious of the fact that a few slobs can ruin my reputation as well as that of all my fellows. Were I inclined to forget it, I'm reminded regularly in the hook & bullet press and by game department publications in their efforts to maintain a favorable impression of hunters in the eyes of landowners and the public. Just so and good enough. Western landowners, the dusty booted heirs of the pioneers, must keep an eye to their reputations as well. It should be impossible to ignore historic overgrazing and other detrimental practices of western husbandry and it requires willful blindness not to see examples of contemporaneous range damage occurring all over the west, in far from isolated instances. Further, I do not believe that the general public or many sportsmen perceive ranchers and farmers to have the patent on the moral high ground they seem to assume when it conflicts over land usage arise. In any event, phrases like "welfare rancher" are no more palatable than "slob hunter" and stem from similar kernels of truth.

Recently a New Mexico rancher up in the northeastern part of the state shot 39 pronghorn antelope which he asserts were eating his sprouting winter wheat. The Albuquerque Journal ran the story and put up a video from the NM Dept. of Game and Fish, but the Journal keeps their articles behind a subscriber only firewall, so here is an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican. The video, which I have not found on-line, was taken by Game and Fish officers called to the scene and shows antelope lying in fallow land outside of a high fence around some wheat, but doesn't provide a panoramic view of the situation or document every kill. Outrageously, it shows a doe antelope hobbling on a broken foreleg and another wounded and unable to stand, but still breathing. Both animals had apparently been left suffering, rather than humanely dispatched. According to the news stories, the rancher, Neal Trujillo, reported shooting the antelope with a shotgun.

Pronghorns, commonly known as "antelope" or "pronghorn antelope" are a creature unique to North America and have populations in most of the western states, including New Mexico. At one point, things didn't look too good for them. "By 1920 it was thought that only about 30,000 pronghorn remained. But then the future for pronghorn became brighter. Conservation-minded organizations supported state, provincial, and federal programs that curtailed hunting by settlers and market hunters and provided protection through refuges." In his memoir "Smokey Bear and the Great Wilderness" Elliot S. Barker recounts that Aldo Leopold surveyed New Mexico and found only about 1700 antelope in the state at about that time. As recounted by Barker, "Alarmed by this precarious situation, the organized sportsmen of the NMGPA (New Mexico Game Protective Association) took prompt action to save the antelope. They secured the cooperation of the cattle and sheep growers, the Forest Service and the greatly under-financed and political Department of Game and Fish." As a result, "By 1928, Dr. J. Stokely Ligon, the wildlife biologist of the U.S. Biological Survey, estimated the herds increased to 4,500." Barker became the state Game Warden in 1931, and in 1937 New Mexico's Game and Fish Department pioneered antelope trapping and transplanting in order to return them to suitable range from which they had been killed out. Antelope are now widely distributed and doing pretty well in the state.

As a result of the legacy of cooperation between sportsmen, the Game and Fish Department, and landowners, in New Mexico those who have elk or antelope on their property can obtain permits for the hunting of those species. The number of permits issued for a given piece of land is based upon the acreage of the property and its usage by the species in question. The permits are transferable, so that the landowner can sell them and thereby gain some income in return for the habitat he provides. Looking on the New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish website, specifically the pdf listing of landowner antelope permits, and going to Animal Management Unit 54 (AMU 54) I see that Neal Trujillo got 4 antelope permits for his property near Cimarron, NM, last year. This is, presumably, the property where he shot the antelope this spring. I couldn't find anyone on the web advertising just permits right now, but permits advertised in the Albuquerque paper in the fall seem to go for around $1000 a piece. Here is a site advertising guided hunts starting at $1800. The New Mexican article quotes a Game and Fish Officer as saying that Trujillo gets 15 antelope permits for various properties he controls.

While Mr. Trujillo complains that the antelope are eating his wheat and forage, he neglects to account for the money he can obtain by selling permits. He apparently wishes to have all the forage and antelope, too. Coupled with the callous act of allowing wounded animals to suffer and the fact that each of the doe antelope were almost surely pregnant and bound to deliver in the next couple of months, I find it impossible not to perceive Mr. Trujillo as a bad apple.

The situation leading to Mr. Trujillo shooting the antelope without being subject to prosecution is interesting, too. In New Mexico, property owners are required by law to fence out any livestock they don't want on their property. Under NMSA1978 Sec. 77-16-1 "Every gardener, farmer, planter or other person having lands or crops that would be injured by trespassing animals, shall make a sufficient fence about his land in cultivation, or other lands that may be so injured, the same to correspond with the requirements of the laws of this state prescribing and defining a legal fence." A subsequent section of the law, Sec. 77-16-3, prohibits anyone from recovering damages from trespass by "cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hogs or other livestock" unless the land is properly fenced.
For example, back in 1994 the New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish spent $35,000 to strengthen a fence around a wildlife area in northeastern New Mexico in order to keep a local rancher's buffalo herd, which was pushing through the regular barbed wire fence, off of the sensitive area. Anecdotally, I can think of half a dozen different riparian stretches where habitat improvement funds raised by stamps required of hunters and fishers have been used to fence out cattle grazing on public lands in order to allow the streamside to recover. Private or public, if you don't want stock there, you have to fence it out.

In contrast, thanks to a law, NMSA Sec. 17-2-7.2, sponsored by the legislator/rancher Tim Jennings mentioned in the New Mexican article, a landowner or lessee can kill wildlife on his land that presents an immediate threat of damage to his crops or property. Actually, Jennings' law doesn't specify "wildlife" but rather "game animals or other quadrupeds, game birds or fowl", which seems rather a conflict with the NM livestock statutes which first require you to fence out stock and then specify how and when trespassing stock can be held. Cows being quadrupeds, it would seem to be open season once they present danger to crops on private land. While I couldn't find a case resolving the conflict of law I know what defense I'd use if I'd mowed down a bunch of cows that had gotten on my property. I don't recommend such a course, though. I wouldn't want to bet on a favorable resolution of the apparent conflict of law from the courts.

In any event, I find it a bit hard to swallow the distinction between having to fence off private cows from private land, or even public land, but being able to shoot public wildlife regardless of the condition of one's fence.


2 comments:

hcmtx said...

Wow! I had hoped New Mexico had changes some, with a Presidential candidate and all, but I see the ranchers are still running the state. I have not lived in New Mexico for 16 years but little has changed for the better. I recall during the 1980's when there was an effort to pass the Sike's Act (sic) which is on your hunting license as the Habitat Improvement stamp ($5.00). At the time I was running a large shooting club and encouraged all the members to support the effort, which passed. A few years later I was deer hunting on National Forest land near Datil and found a water tank that had been funded thru the
Sike's Act which had been turned off in the fall, after his cattle had been removed from his lease. It was covered up with elk and turkey tracks, and it was dry. So much for the "stewards of the land". I feel sorry for New Mexico, and I love her and hope to return.

Steve Bodio said...

Excellent analysis, Mike.