NM needs a wildlife conservation agency

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

The rapid loss of plants and animals across the world is nothing new. Scientists have been sounding the alarm bells for decades. But this nightmare – which is literally happening in our backyards – highlights the disaster and should push all New Mexicans to stand up to demand action from state leaders. New Mexico is one of the most biodiverse states in the Union. For our culture, our health, our economy and our ecosystems, biodiversity deserves to bend over backwards to protect it.

But who or what protects New Mexico’s great biodiversity? The agency theoretically charged with this crucial task is the New Mexico Department of Hunt and Fish. But the department is mainly focused on the promotion of hunting and the propagation of species of interest to hunters and fishermen.

Game and Fish is good for the wildlife of our state. But too often policies have little to do with protecting biodiversity. Oryxes imported from Africa in the 1960s to attract hunters with the prospect of “alien species” now threaten the grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert. The department pays roughly six figures a year to private trappers who kill native mountain lions for the avowed purpose of retrieving bighorn sheep from the desert. But then the department turns around and sells tags to hunt those same bighorns.

Emails promoting the hunt go out of the agency. An April email explained to the public how to make “Dutch doves”. And, of course, the department allows the unlimited slaughter of fur-bearing animals such as bobcats, foxes, badgers and beavers by private and commercial trappers, even encouraging children to trap.

New Mexico needs a Department of Biodiversity. Or a wildlife department. Or an agency of whatever name that will put its resources to work to prevent the collapse of our ecosystems rather than disseminating recipes for sandhill cranes (another game and fish offering).

To be clear, this is not a critique of ethical subsistence hunting – in a good year my family has Chama-area elk in the freezer. And for many weekends I can be found throwing flies on our beautiful rivers and streams. I know the staff at Game and Fish who are knowledgeable, hardworking and true conservationists. Moreover, the ministry alone does not dictate its mission. Funding and laws guide the agency to 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 cohort looked into the question “How to stay relevant?” The answer has never been so obvious: protect biodiversity. There are literally birds falling from the sky in droves. Our ecosystems are in danger. What New Mexico urgently needs is an agency to deal with the most significant crises of our generation.

Game and Fish had plenty of time to concentrate. Climate change and extinction aren’t really new. For years, advocates have encouraged the department to protect all wildlife, diversify its funding to achieve this necessary new goal, and put long-term economic and ecological health before – or at least alongside – hunt. Our wildlife and plant populations no longer have the luxury of waiting.

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

New Mexico must take the lead. Our national wildlife action plan is underfunded. Resources are spent on recruiting hunters instead of scavenging endangered wildlife. Yes, money is hard to come by. And, yes, there are some tough sidebars that need to come down. Change takes time. But our fauna does not have time.

The ministry and our elected leaders need to do some soul searching. New revenue, new ideas, new stakeholders and new leadership have never been more important.

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

Christopher Smith from Santa Fe is part of the WildEarth Guardians team.

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