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Guest Column: NM needs a wildlife conservation agency

Albuquerque Journal, Christopher Smith – October 4, 2020

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This month, hundreds of thousands of birds dropped dead out of the skies of New Mexico. The world is facing an extinction crisis, a biodiversity collapse. And New Mexico is not exempt.

The rapid loss of plants and animals across the globe is nothing new. Scientists have been raising the alarm for decades. But this nightmare – literally happening in our backyards – puts the catastrophe in stark relief and should make every New Mexican rise up to demand action from state leadership. New Mexico is one of the most biodiverse states in the union. For our culture, health, economy and ecosystems, biodiversity is worth bending over backwards to protect.

But who or what protects the great biodiversity of New Mexico? The agency theoretically tasked with this critical job is the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. But the department is geared primarily toward promoting hunting and propagating species of interest to hunters and anglers.

Game and Fish does some good for our state’s wildlife. But too often, policies have little to do with protecting biodiversity. Oryx brought in from Africa in the 1960s to lure hunters with the prospect of “exotic species” are now threatening Chihuahuan Desert grasslands. The department pays some six figures a year to private trappers who kill native mountain lions for the expressed purpose of recovering desert bighorn sheep. But then the department turns around and sells tags to hunt those same bighorn.

Emails promoting hunting stream out of the agency. An April email instructed the public on how to make “Dutch oven doves.” And, of course, the department allows unlimited killing of such furbearers as bobcats, foxes, badgers and beavers by private, commercial trappers, even encouraging children to trap.

New Mexico needs a Department of Biodiversity. Or a Department of Wildlife. Or an agency by any name that will put its resources toward staving off the collapse of our ecosystems rather than broadcasting recipes for sandhill crane (another Game and Fish offering).

To be clear, this is not a criticism of ethical subsistence hunting – in a good year, my family has Chama-area elk in the freezer. And on many weekends, I can be found casting flies on our gorgeous rivers and streams. I know Game and Fish staff who are knowledgeable, hardworking and true conservationists. Moreover, the department alone doesn’t dictate its mission. Funding and laws guide the agency toward serving hunters and hunting. And the department doesn’t even have management authority over many species.

In 2019, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Game and Fish’s cohort, considered the question, “How do we stay relevant?” The answer has never been more obvious: protect biodiversity. There are literally birds falling out of the sky en masse. Our ecosystems are at risk. What New Mexico urgently needs is an agency that will deal with the most relevant crises of our generation.

Game and Fish has had plenty of time to shift its focus. Climate change and extinction are not exactly new. For years, advocates have encouraged the department to protect all wildlife, to diversify its funding to achieve this new and necessary goal, and to put long-term economic and ecological health over – or at the very least alongside – hunting. Our wildlife and plant populations don’t have the luxury of waiting any longer.

Under Trump, the federal government has abandoned wildlife conservation. Agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been directed to focus on exploitation and consumption.

New Mexico needs to lead. Our State Wildlife Action Plan is underfunded. Resources are spent recruiting hunters instead of recovering imperiled wildlife. Yes, money is hard to find. And, yes, there are challenging sidebars that need to come down. Change takes time. But our wildlife does not have time.

The department and our elected leaders need to do some soul searching. New revenues, new ideas, new stakeholders and a new direction have never been more important.

We need a wildlife conservation agency, not more bird recipes.

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This Guest Column was published in the Albuquerque Journal.

Christopher Smith of Santa Fe is part of the staff of WildEarth Guardians.