There has been a lot of reaction to the alleged illegal cougar hunt that forced State Game Commission Chairman Scott Bidegain to resign last month.
Some want to prohibit all hunting. Others see it as a symptom of wildlife mismanagement in New Mexico.
But for the thousands of law-abiding, conservation-minded sportsmen and women of New Mexico – the ones who foot the bill for wildlife management and the day-to-day operations of the Department of Game and Fish – this incident demonstrates the need for a careful, extensive reform of our State Game Commission system.
Sportsmen have always been at the forefront of protecting our wildlife and outdoor way of life. A century ago they established Game Protective Associations, which lobbied for stronger laws to protect our remaining fish and wildlife and worked to re-establish elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys and other game species. (The New Mexico Game Protective Association evolved into today’s New Mexico Wildlife Federation.)
Sportsmen then turned their attention to wildlife management, convincing the Legislature to create a State Game Commission to buffer Game and Fish against political interference and set the stage for professional wildlife management.
Today the governor appoints all seven members of the State Game Commission. These appointments, sadly, have become a political plum that often appears tied to campaign contributions. Five of Gov. Bill Richardson’s appointees and their families, for example, together donated $150,000.
State law says five of the seven seats represent geographic areas. The remaining two are “at-large” seats to represent agriculture and conservation. But governors often appoint one person to cover two bases simultaneously. Bidegain, for example, was supposed to represent northeastern New Mexico hunters and anglers as well as the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association — two constituencies often at odds with each other.
Governors occasionally remove commissioners without explanation or regard to continuity, term length or qualification. Today, four of the six remaining commissioners’ terms have expired and they have not been reappointed; three have not been confirmed by the Senate.
Our current Game Commission system is not beyond repair. Here are ways to get the politics out of wildlife management and rebuild public trust:
•Give the governor five seats to appoint from geographical areas of the state, ensuring that each commissioner has a single constituency — the license-buying sportsmen and women of that region;
•Give the Legislature two at-large seats to fill, one with a background in agriculture and another in wildlife and habitat protection issues, ensuring that those important constituencies both have a seat at the table;
•Prohibit removal of a commissioner without cause, allowing commissioners to vote for wildlife’s and the public’s best interests rather than according to political pressure;
•Limit commissioners to two four-year terms, and ensure that no more than two commissioners’ terms expire in the same year, preventing a governor from replacing most or even all of the commissioners at one time;
•Prohibit commissioners from receiving hunts, fishing trips or other favors from special interests.
The incident involving Bidegain is, at its heart, an example of unethical and illegal behavior that does not meet the standards of any true hunter. That our Game Commission chairman did not know the law or ignored it is appalling; apparently common sense is not a requirement to get that appointment.
But rebuilding trust in our wildlife management system goes far beyond this one individual and incident. This is not a time for knee-jerk reaction.
Hunting and fishing are core traditional and cultural values in New Mexico. Our wildlife are held in the public trust for all to enjoy. Our State Game commissioners must hold themselves to the highest standard.
The sportsmen and women of New Mexico are eager to get on with the work. The question now is whether Gov. Susana Martinez and our Legislature will lead the charge.