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Issue: Antelope Killed by New Mexico Rancher
Issue: Last Chance for the Lobo?

Jennings Law Used as a Tool to Extort Public Subsidies 

By Jeremy Vesbach

This spring, rancher Neal Trujillo used an ATV and a shotgun to chase down and kill or maim 39 pronghorn antelope on his newly acquired property near Cimarron. The local media gained access to video showing wounded animals that were left behind for the State Game and Fish Department officers to put down. The ensuing outrage spread across the state renewing calls to overturn a statute known as the Jennings Law, named after Roswell senator Tim Jennings. The Jennings Law, passed 11 years ago, allows landowners to kill game animals that they think might be about to damage their crops.

Few defended Trujillo’s actions, but his motives seemed clear from his statements to the press. He claimed the antelope were harming his livelihood as a farmer and he wasn’t getting help from the Game and Fish Department so he took matters into his own hands.

It’s a familiar refrain with the series of massive big-game kills by a handful of angry ranchers over the last decade since the Jennings Law legalized these types of incidents.  A closer look, however, reveals that incidents like this are almost never about crop damage but are instead aimed squarely at harvesting more subsidies from our state wildlife agency.

“Every time an antelope takes a bite out of my field, he’s taking money out of my pocket,” Trujillo told the Albuquerque Journal. However a quick review of the facts shows that Trujillo receives subsidies that dwarf the small amount of grazing he faced by an antelope herd.

According to State Game and Fish Department rules, Trujillo was supposed to provide an accounting of how much immediate economic loss he faced. He has never done so. Records show that Trujillo has accepted public crop subsidies of over $176,000 over the last few years. In 2007 alone, he received an additional form of subsidy through private hunting license authorizations that allow him to hold and sell scarce licenses for publicly owned antelope to the highest bidder. The estimated value of these hunting tag subsidies are over $35,000 just for the pronghorn licenses he received—and he likely made much more from 29 elk licenses on his several properties just last year. In contrast, calculations based on current grazing rates for cattle show that Trujillo was likely facing a maximum impact of between $176 to $640 during the period he was filing complaints with the State Department of Game and Fish—and the actual impact was certainly much lower because Game and Fish conservation officers were hazing the antelope herd away from his fields.

It gets even more nonsensical. Trujillo was offered economic and labor assistance from the State Game and Fish Department to improve the fence around his newly acquired fields and keep antelope out. He declined the offer of fencing assistance. The State Game and Fish Department offered to bring in licensed public hunters to reduce the antelope herd in a special hunt, where he would receive complete liability shield under state statute. He declined this offer as well.

In all, the State Game and Fish Department contacted Trujillo 24 times over a 36-day period with numerous offers of public assistance. It would be easy to conclude that he was simply being unreasonable and irrational, except for one final fact. The 11-year old Jennings Law also imposed a fee on all people who buy New Mexico hunting licenses, creating a fund to assist landowners in wildlife-proof fences and other subsidies. Trujillo wanted the Game and Fish to build and maintain a massively expensive elk-proof fence on his new property from this fund. (Keep in mind that New Mexico is a fence-out state where landowners are responsible for keeping other people’s cattle off their property.) Just asking clearly wasn’t working to get this subsidy so he tried upping the ante and crossed the line of decency in pursuing the publicly built and financed fence by starting to kill wildlife. Unfortunately, this strategy of killing big game until you get a better offer does often work.

In May 2003, ranch manager David Sanchez started shooting elk for eating grass on his property, killing 20 and threatening to kill more until the Department of Game and Fish offered to build an elk proof fence around his property and pay him $5,000.

In 2000, rancher Narcisco Baca requested nearly 10 times as many private elk licenses to sell as the Department of Game and Fish deemed to be sustainable or reasonable. He killed 64 elk, declined offers to build a fence and keep elk out of his property, but kept pushing for more permits to sell.

Currently, landowner Brad Latham near Grants, New Mexico claims he has killed over 100 elk, although the Department of Game and Fish can confirm only a fraction of the kills he has claimed. Despite Latham’s claim that he has too many elk, he has refused to allow public hunters on his property to reduce the herd. He has refused offers of public subsidies to improve his fence. Why is he refusing offers of public assistance? In statements to the Game Commission last summer he complained that he was not getting enough “unit wide” elk licenses to sell. (Unit wide licenses allow him to sell tags that are also good on public land). It may sound strange to call these massive big game killings “negotiations,” but that is exactly what they are. The subsidies that can be gained from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish are so massive and so attractive sometimes the lines of decency get crossed in pursuing them.

There are a few bad apples in every bunch and the massive kill-offs of wildlife by a few ranchers do not represent ranchers as a whole. However, it is incumbent upon ranchers as a whole to remind their peers that they all owe something back to the public after accepting public assistance in terms of reduced grazing fees on public lands, crop subsidies from the farm bill, or hunting permits to sell on the open market to non-residents at the expense of resident hunting opportunity. All these forms of assistance come at a cost to the public, and it is not unreasonable to expect a sense of responsibility towards publicly owned wildlife in return for these subsidies we provide. The most obvious way to display that sense of public responsibility is for ranchers themselves to support reform of the Jennings Law, as many already have.

To make a difference on this issue, call your legislator and ask them to reform the Jennings Law and call the State Department of Game and Fish and ask them to keep up their recent progress in making sure that the subsidies they offer landowners do not accidentally encourage wildlife conflicts.