A sweeping bill to modernize wildlife management in New Mexico is dead for this legislative session after two Democratic senators failed to support a procedural move to keep the bill alive during a committee hearing last Saturday. Bill Soules (D-Las Cruces) joined Republicans on the Senate Conservation Committee in voting against a motion to reconsider, while Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) was absent when the vote on the bill was called, for the second time in a week.

The Wildlife Heritage Act (SB312) would have broadened the mission and authority of the state Game Commission and Department of Game and Fish to protect all wildlife species in the state in accordance with the idea that wildlife is a public trust that the government as trustee has a duty to manage for the benefit of all New Mexicans, including future generations. Currently the Commission/Department’s management authority is limited to a subset of species listed in state law, many of them animals of interest to hunters, anglers and trappers, reflecting the agency’s traditional focus on serving those user groups.

The bill, introduced by Senator Jeff Steinborn and cosponsored by Representative Nathan Small, both from Doña Ana County, would have changed the name of the Game Commission and Department to “Wildlife Conservation Commission” and “Department of Wildlife Conservation” respectively, and provided a general fund appropriation of $2 million to support both the name change and programs to protect “species of greatest conservation need.” In addition, it would have freed up as much as an additional $1 million by removing restrictions on how money in one internal fund (Depredation Fund) could be used by the Department.

It also would have eliminated the so-called “Jennings Law” that allows individuals to shoot animals that are suspected of damaging their property before requesting assistance from the Department to resolve conflicts with wildlife. In the past ranchers and farmers have used this authority to kill or wound dozens of elk and pronghorn that were allegedly eating their crops.

In a previous hearing of the Senate Conservation Committee, the bill received a 4-4 vote on a motion to table, which meant it neither advanced nor died. That vote was mostly along party lines, when all the Democrats on the committee who were present voted to pass it, with the exception of committee chair Liz Stefanics, who joined with the Republicans in voting against it. (Joseph Cervantes was absent when the vote was called.) Stefanics was concerned about how a provision to eliminate the requirement in current statute that 10 percent of big game licenses be reserved for outfitters each year would affect her rural district.

The elimination of the outfitter “set aside” (in effect, a subsidy unique to New Mexico for the outfitting industry) proved to be the most controversial provision of the bill, so the sponsors agreed to strip it out.  However, the motion on Saturday to reconsider the bill failed to pass, again on a 4-4 vote, except that this time Stefanics and Soules switched votes. Stefanics voted to reconsider while Soules joined Republicans in voting against reconsideration. (Cervantes was once again absent when it came time to vote, although he had been in attendance earlier during the hearing.)

SB312 is effectively dead for this year.

This is disappointing and a tremendous opportunity lost. The stars seemed to be aligned for the Wildlife Heritage Act to pass this year. It was supported by a broad coalition that included nearly every major wildlife advocacy and sportsmens’ group in New Mexico. There was money available for an appropriation. With progressive majorities in both the House and Senate, the bill almost certainly would have passed if it had made it out of committee.

It is especially disappointing that it died at the hands of two Democratic senators. (Republicans were never going to support it.) Both Soules and Cervantes have a record of voting against previous versions of SB312 when they’ve come before the Senate Conservation Committee. In 2017, Soules opposed a bill (SB266) sponsored by Steinborn that would have expanded the mission and authority of the Game Commission as an unfunded mandate. The bill died when Soules and Cervantes joined all the Republicans on the committee in voting to table it.

The same thing happened again in 2019 with another Steinborn bill (SB417), even though it contained language added to address Soules’ concern by stating that the commission was not obligated to take on new  responsibilities unless additional funding was available. This didn’t satisfy Soules, and the bill died when Soules and Cervantes again joined Republicans in voting to table it.

And now, in 2021, Soules sided with the Safari Club, National Rifle Association, and NM Cattle Growers’ Association in opposing the bill, even though it included a significant amount of additional funding for  the department. However progressive he may be on other issues, he is not when it comes to wildlife reform.

(It is not clear what Cervantes’ position is on SB312, because he was not present for a vote both times it came up in committee, and phone calls and emails to his office went unanswered. Given his record, we can assume he would have voted against it.)

SWEC and other supporters of modernizing wildlife conservation in New Mexico are not giving up. We will try to get a reform bill passed in the “short” session of 2022, taking advantage of the intervening months to mount a grassroots organizing campaign to convince the governor to make this a priority issue for her. In the meantime, we will continue to let our members know where their legislators stand on this transformative legislation.