Game Commissioners Concerned Over State Land Office’s Unilateral Closure Of Waterfowl Hunting Area

Ben Neary

Conservation Director
New Mexico Wildlife Federation

Leaders of the New Mexico State Game Commission met Monday with State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard to voice concern about her closure last week of a prime waterfowl hunting area south of Albuquerque.

Garcia Richard ordered the closure of over 200 acres of state land to hunting and trapping last week. The land, southwest of the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, borders the Rio Grande.

Garcia Richard ordered the closure without public notice and without consulting with an advisory group of hunters and anglers she impaneled earlier this year.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish department pays the land office $1 million a year to lease state trust lands around the state for hunting, trapping and fishing.

NMDG&F Director Michael Sloane wrote to Garcia Richard last week protesting that her action in withdrawing the parcel from the lease during hunting season was improper. The game department didn’t get notice from the land office of the closure in advance.

Attempts to reach Sloane for comment Monday on Garcia Richard’s actions were not successful.

Ari Biernoff, general counsel for the land office, wrote to Sloane on Friday saying Garcia Richard has clear authority under the lease to withdraw the parcel from hunting and trapping.

“(T)he Bosque Parcel is located in close proximity to significant residential development, as the attached map indicated, and is not an appropriate venue for hunting or trapping,” Biernoff wrote to Sloane. “The issue recently has come to the State Land Office’s attention because the adjacent Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge opened a parking lot earlier this year which provides easy access to the Bosque Parcel.

“As a result of this new access — not developed to facilitate hunting, which is prohibited at Valle de Oro — there has been a surge in hunting activity on the Bosque Parcel,” Biernoff wrote. “The State Land Office has received, and continues to receive, numerous complaints from local residents and recreationists expressing safety concerns.”

As state land, the parcel has been open for hunting for years but hasn’t attracted significant attention until recently. Access to the parcel improved significantly with the public purchase of the Valle de Oro property in the last decade. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation helped to realize the purchase of the Valle de Oro property through a federal grant under the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

Joanna Prukop, chair of the state game commission, and Roberta Salazar-Henry, the commission’s vice-chair, met with Garcia Richard in Santa Fe Monday to discuss the closure.

“Any time hunting on public lands is closed, or diminished, I’m very concerned because it impacts the future of hunting and reasonable access for sportsmen in local areas and across the state,” Prukop said after the meeting.

Steven Ikeda, assistant director of surface resources with the State Land Office in Santa Fe, said Monday that neighbors started complaining about the hunting as soon as the waterfowl season opened early last month. He said complaints first went to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel at the Valle de Oro, but soon started coming to his office.

Ikeda said he researched the issue when the complaints started coming in and found that hunting was legal in the area, He said his office first posted signs at the Valle de Oro parking area bordering the state section to alert the public that hunting was occurring there.

Ikeda said his office received a few complaints every day until its decision to close the area.

“Obviously, there’s two sides to the story, but we had a lot of folks telling us they were extremely concerned for their safety, and all these types of things,” Ikeda said. “And it could just be them not being hunters and not understanding that a shotgun fired 300 yards from your house is really not a safety issue, but if you’ve never had it happen and you’ve lived there for 30 years, you’re going to raise an issue.”

Ikeda said the State Land Office felt the need to address the issue quickly before more hunters learned about the area being open.

“We felt like if we’re going to close it, we need to put out the fire before it gets too big,” Ikeda said. “What we felt like was this was probably only a fairly small group of hunters who quote-unquote figured out that they were legal to hunt in there. And we’re like, ‘if we just leave it open and word gets out, it’s going to become a lot of hunters in there, because it’s close to the biggest urban area in the state,’ right? So that was some of the thoughts on that.”

Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said Monday he regards Garcia Richard’s decision to close the area without consulting with the hunting and angling advisory group or the public at large to be misguided.

“The New Mexico Wildlife Federation has worked for years to improve and conserve thousands of acres of waterfowl habitat along the Rio Grande,” Deubel said. “Every hunter knows that access to waterfowl hunting is in critically short supply.

“Garcia Richard’s decision to end hunting on public lands that lie just south of Albuquerque without so much as consulting with the game department or hunters is utterly unacceptable,” Deubel said. “It would be possible to place certain restrictions on hunting there that would go a long way toward satisfying residents’ concerns while still preserving the public’s right to hunt.”

Deubel urged hunters to contact Garcia Richards and urge her to reconsider her decision to close the parcel.

“There’s no danger to neighboring residents in that area from responsible waterfowl hunting,” Deubel said. “I find it particularly ironic that the State Land Office would adopt its new slogan saying, “Open For Adventure,” and then turn around and hang up the “Closed to Hunting” sign on such a prime piece of public land.”