By Deborah Baker And Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writers
SANTA FE, N.M. — The New Mexico Game Commission on Thursday approved paying $1 million next year to the State Land Office for hunter access to state trust lands but delayed until January a vote on a second contentious issue – holding Mexican wolves at Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch.
The commission, meeting in Roswell, voted 5-1 for the higher fee to allow hunters, anglers and trappers access to trust lands managed by the Land Office.
The agreement, which followed months of negotiation, also would expand the number of designated areas where hunters can camp. And the Land Office agreed to ensure that critical access points to hunting lands are kept open and marked with signs.
Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, who had insisted the current annual fee of $200,000 for the easement is much too low, praised the Game Commission’s decision.
“The price is fair, and it benefits the trust, more specifically New Mexico’s public schoolchildren,” he said in a statement.
The Land Office oversees 9 million surface acres – of which about 8 million acres are suitable for hunting – and 13 million subsurface acres. The revenue goes to schools, universities, hospitals and other public institutions.
The New Mexico Wildlife Federation called the $1 million fee “outrageous.”
Federation President John Crenshaw said a $600,000 fee “would have been more than sufficient, but tolerable.”
He said Dunn’s insistence on $1 million put the Game Commission and the Department of Game and Fish, which pays the fee, in a tough position: “either pay the exorbitant fee or shut 7,000 or 8,000 hunters out of millions of acres of public trust lands.”
Sportsmen’s groups had said any increase in the annual fee should be accompanied by benefits, such as more camping availability and a guarantee that hunters wouldn’t run into locked gates across trust lands.
In an apparent swipe at the Wildlife Federation, which had weighed in publicly during the negotiations, Dunn said “political special interest groups” had tried to “distract and interfere” with the negotiation process.
“There are specific organizations that do not want me in office, so they used these negotiations with the Game Department as a chance to make political cheap shots in order to promote their political agenda,” Dunn said in a statement.
Crenshaw said his organization would have objected to the higher fee proposals “no matter who they came from.”
The Game Commission is expected to rule at its Jan. 14 meeting in Santa Fe whether to reverse its denial of a permit allowing Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch to hold endangered Mexican wolves.
The Ladder Ranch appealed after the commission in May recommended the department revoke a permit that had been in place for 17 years.
The Sierra County ranch is a stopover for wolves scheduled to be released into the wild by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of its program to recover the species in its historic habitat of New Mexico and Arizona. It also receives wolves removed from the wild for nuisance behavior, such as preying on cattle.
“I appreciate their deliberate approach,” said Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. “They now have until January to study the issue in detail.”
“It just seems like there is more and more delay and another generation is going to be born inbred in a few months,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The poor genetics of the wild population of wolves is an obstacle to the species’ long-term survival, Robinson said. The wolf recovery program began in the 1980s when just seven of the animals remained. They have been bred to improve their genetic diversity, but few releases of captive wolves in recent years means the wild population is less genetically healthy than the captive one.
The commission renewed a two-year permit for another Turner property, the Vermejo Ranch in northern New Mexico, which is engaged in recovering the endangered black-footed ferret.