Political appointees set state wildlife policy. Critics say that’s a problem.

New Mexico lawmakers have struggled to change the state’s wildlife agency.

By: - June 9, 2023 4:35 am
White-throated swifts carry insects to feed their young, nestled against the bottom of bridges along the Rio Grande.

White-throated swifts carry insects to feed their young, nestled against the bottom of bridges along the Rio Grande. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Hunters, tree-huggers and bird-watchers alike think New Mexico’s wildlife management system is broken. This year, they united behind a bill to restructure the state’s Game Commission, which oversees hunting, fishing and other wildlife policies.

Over the past several years, the commission has seen numerous appointees submit their resignations or get forced out by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

“The bill was universally supported, not because it was perfect,” said Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “It was universally supported because everybody understands we need an end to the dysfunctional system that currently exists.”

The bill would have limited the governor’s ability to dismiss commissioners, while shifting power from the governor to the Legislative Council to appoint four of the seven members. Backers said it would have provided stability to a commission that has sometimes lacked enough members to even form a quorum.

“It’s just a shitshow over there,” said Kevin Bixby, co-executive director of Wildlife for All, a New Mexico-based national campaign to overhaul state wildlife agencies. “It’s not a very good way to make policy if you never know if you’re going to be there for the next meeting.”

The bill sailed through the state legislature with large bipartisan majorities. Lujan Grisham — who did not respond to a request for comment — declined to sign it, killing the effort.

Advocates say New Mexico illustrates the problems with the commission system governing states’ wildlife management nationwide. Commission seats, they charge, are handed out as political favors, filled by wealthy landowners, business and agriculture magnates who set policy to protect their economic interests, not wildlife.

“This is a systemic problem with wildlife management in the U.S.,” said Bixby. “These commissions allow for the injection of political influence, as opposed to a model where you have an agency that’s run by a director with professional credentials and expertise.”

Not everyone is convinced that legislatures making appointments would be an improvement. At least one New Mexico Republican lawmaker worried that the legislature’s makeup — Democrats control both houses — could slant its choices for appointments.

The commission issue has risen in several states. Last year, wildlife commissioners in Montana faced scrutiny for discussing controversial wolf regulations via email, a move some critics described as an illegal meeting. In 2021, a Natural Resources Board member in Wisconsin refused to step down when his term expired, setting off a legal controversy. And an Idaho wildlife commissioner resigned in 2018 after taking a trophy hunting trip to Africa and conceding he did not display “sportsmanship and respect for the animals.”

In New Mexico, a spokesperson for Lujan Grisham told The Associated Press last year that the governor had ousted one commissioner over a “disagreement of mission,” and denied the commissioner’s assertions that the dismissal was related to his decisions about public access to streams on private property.

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish is struggling to stay afloat, with a budget based on hunting and fishing license fees that haven’t been increased since 2006. Conservation groups say a separate bill to update those fees and provide more revenue to the agency failed because lawmakers lack confidence in the department.

Advocates for change say the struggle in New Mexico is emblematic of larger problems with America’s wildlife management system — and of the uphill battle facing those who want to see a new model.

‘A slap in the face’

As in most states, New Mexico’s wildlife agency is overseen by a volunteer commission selected by the governor. Critics say those seats are often granted as political favors to donors or business leaders with no wildlife expertise. Lujan Grisham’s appointees have included a car dealer, an Exxon Mobil lobbyist and a former lawmaker who owns an oil and gas business.

Meanwhile, the governor removed a pair of commissioners who had made their careers in wildlife conservation. The ousted commissioners contend that Lujan Grisham dismissed them because they opposed a rule allowing landowners to block public access to streams and rivers. That rule was later deemed unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

Joanna Prukop worked in the Department of Game & Fish for decades and chaired the commission before her dismissal. She thinks she was fired because the governor’s wealthy donors wanted to keep the public off their ranches.

“No one can block the public’s access to public waters in New Mexico,” she said. “It’s an absolute disgrace, and it’s a slap in the face to all of us in the public.”

But a Lujan Grisham spokesperson attributed the dismissal to “policy and style” differences, not politics, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The seven-seat commission currently has only five appointees, and some of its meetings have been canceled or cut short due to a lack of voting members. Critics say Lujan Grisham has been slow to appoint replacements.

This year, a broad coalition backed the bill that would have given state legislators the power to appoint four commission members, while leaving three selections with the governor. It would have reserved four appointments for a rancher-farmer, a conservationist, a hunter and a scientist. Under the bill, commissioners could only be removed for cause by the state Supreme Court.

“The idea was to diversify and professionalize the commission,” said state Rep. Matthew McQueen, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. “Right now we have commissioners who are appointed for reasons other than their expertise with fish and wildlife.”

Though the bill received bipartisan support, some Republicans expressed concern that the partisan makeup of the statehouse could affect legislative appointments.

“I worry that those four [commission seats appointed by lawmakers] … could cause some lopsidedness and not the diversity that I’m looking for,” Republican state Rep. Luis Terrazas said during debate on the House floor.

A broader focus

Wildlife advocates in many states are seeking to rethink the role of state agencies, and one state is taking steps in that direction. As Stateline previously reported, lawmakers in Washington state approved tens of millions of dollars earlier this year to protect at-risk species, while also mandating a review to examine the state wildlife agency’s governance and funding model.

While Washington considers a new approach to wildlife management, many other states — including New Mexico — are still largely dependent on hunting and fishing revenues to fund their work. As a result, wildlife officials have primarily focused their work on animals like deer and sportfish, even as many other species have declined at alarming rates. That model has proven difficult to change.

New Mexico lawmakers considered a bill this year to increase license fees for the first time in nearly two decades, which the department supported, but the measure stalled in the House.

The Department of Game & Fish did not make officials available for an interview by publication time.

Legislators did give the agency a one-time boost of $7 million to get through the next fiscal year. But some believe bigger changes are needed. McQueen, who chairs the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, also backed a bill that would have renamed the Department of Game & Fish to the Wildlife Department and expanded its focus to a broader array of species.

Momentum for that measure stalled, however, when a much-anticipated effort to broaden states’ wildlife work with additional federal funding fell short in the U.S. Congress.

Wildlife advocates say the agency’s mission still needs an overhaul, even as they struggle to change its governance and funding structure.

“There’s a need to transform this department from something that propagates elk and rainbow trout at the behest of 5% of the state to something that protects all wildlife,” said Chris Smith, Southwest wildlife advocate with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental nonprofit.

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Alex Brown, Stateline
Alex Brown, Stateline

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.