New Mexico Benefits From Private Elk Hunting- Stewardship Stories

Scene from a successful Catch-A-Dream youth hunt. Photo by Melissa Montoya

Scene from a Catch-A-Dream youth hunt. Photo by Melissa Montoya

Scene from a Catch-A- Dream youth hunt. Photo by Melissa Montoya

Chama Peak Land Alliance

Approximately half of the elk habitat in the state of New Mexico is located on private lands.  The impact from elk can be extremely taxing on landowner resources such as forage, fences, and water.  One tool that the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish offers to help incentivize habitat improvements on private lands and to compensate for damages caused by elk is a system that allocates elk hunting tags for properties that meet certain habitat guidelines, so that income can be generated from the loss of resources taken by the wildlife.  Called EPLUS, Elk Private Lands Use System, the department determines tags available to the landowner based on herd densities, habitat resources, locations, and game management needs determined by the agency.

Thanks to EPLUS, landowners are incentivized to invest in habitat improvements such as water improvements, grass seeding, wildlife friendly fencing, and forest management that allows wildlife movement and cover.  Often touted as the best system in the West, the system is not perfect, but comes close in regard to balancing the needs of the wildlife,  promoting habitat conservation on private lands, and providing hunting opportunities within the rural communities where elk reside.  Like any other wildlife management policy, the system has both its fans and critics. Some vocal advocates and sportsmen’s groups have recently been calling for the elimination of EPLUS and associated policies. A benefit that isn’t judged by dollars and cents though, is the community created in conjunction with the industry.  The often quietly shared stories, the help in keeping rural communities alive where there is little else left, and the sense of conservation of the wildlife, the land, and the open spaces are meaningful for those involved.  

Melissa Montoya, who has been a Catch-A-Dream host volunteer since 2018, is thankful for the elk landowner permitting system in New Mexico.

 “We talk about giving these kids this once in a lifetime opportunity to hunt or fish in the great outdoors, but really, it does so much for all the people involved.  Watching members of the hunting industry, landowners, and the whole community rally around these kids and their families is so inspiring,” Montoya said.

She says that her brother offers his private land to the foundation so that kids can have an opportunity to hunt, that wouldn’t be able to hunt in the draw system.  She says the freedom to let those families pick a date that works for them between medical treatments and doctor visits and not wait for months for draw results is immensely helpful. 

“I wish we could do this with mule deer, but the draw just makes it too hard. Montoya said.  She noted that her family has fallen in love with each kid and getting to watch a family that hasn’t ever been able to hunt here is simply spiritual.

 “Through family, love and enjoying the outdoors, we hope to restore each family and take them away from their all-consuming worries.  We do everything we can to spoil them.  Camping, hanging out around a campfire, enjoying the stars in northern New Mexico is unlike anything else.  We are faith based, and if and when a young hunter does harvest, their appreciation for the elk and the opportunity to provide for their family is extraordinary,” Montoya said.

Participants must be facing a life-threatening illness, and the foundation covers every single cost associated with the trip for the young hunter and their family.  She points out that the foundation once took kids to the Valles Caldera National Preserve, but because of changes in the management of hunting, they are no longer able to.  Little changes have a big impact, and for those single-minded opponents of the EPLUS program, doing away with landowner tags would eliminate opportunities like these offered by Catch-A-Dream.  

Joby Conley, with Apache Ranch, says they have given landowner cow tags to youth agricultural clubs, community clubs and as fundraisers for members in need in the small communities near where they hunt.  He says it gives them an opportunity to give back to the next generation of hunters. 

“If kids need help, we donate.  It’s that simple.  We are able to do this because we have flexibility to with a landowner tag,” Conley said.

He says rural communities don’t have a lot of opportunities for fundraising and this helps because there is flexibility in the hunt, so people are excited to buy raffle tickets for these hunts.  He says even cow hunts, which provide a hunting opportunity and lots of top-quality meat are a very important part of rural communities.  

Ernest Vigil, a local Chama businessman and the mayor of Chama, says that for a village like Chama, gross receipts is the only income besides utilities.

“The hunters spend at every business, and it is a tremendous boost to our economy.  The loss of the private hunting would be devastating,” he said.

Chama sees the impact in everything from groceries to gas purchases.  The boutique and gift stores are busy as hunters take home gifts for loved ones and rooms are reserved at full capacity.  Meals are purchased, and locals find employment opportunities because of the boost in the economy.  The loss of private lands hunting opportunities will dry up communities that have little left.  

Photos courtesy of Melissa Montoya, Catch-A-Dream Foundation