ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Environmentalists are concerned that reorganizing the New Mexico Game and Fish Department could spell trouble for the state's nongame animals and programs aimed at conserving threatened and endangered species.
Not so, the agency says.
A lightning rod for controversy, the department is again sitting at the center of a longstanding debate over its mission and how it balances conservation and the interests of hunters and anglers whose license fees pay for much of the department's work.
The department is in the middle of a massive shuffle that involves streamlining field operations and lines of communication, making its law enforcement arm more efficient and moving specialized biologists and recovery experts into a wildlife division that will handle everything from deer and elk to rare lizards and fish.
"My hunch is that the concerns are that the agency is going to move to a hook and bullet agency and not really care about nongame and threatened and endangered stuff. That's about as far from the truth that you can get," said R.J. Kirkpatrick, who oversees the department's wildlife and conservation services divisions.
The concerns are fueled by criticisms of Gov. Susana Martinez's administration that stretch back to 2011, when the Republican first took office and attempted to roll back some of the policies imposed by her Democratic predecessor.
Game commissioners, four of whom were appointed by Martinez, voted unanimously last year to pull out of the federal government's Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program. The commission also voted to end a trapping ban in wolf territory in southwestern New Mexico and recently increased hunting quotas for mountain lion and bear.
Kirkpatrick said the department is bound by statute to make recommendations to the commission based on the best available science as well as social and economic considerations.
Wendy Keefover of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians questioned data used by the department and called its reorganization "just another step toward regression."
"The Martinez administration is failing to address the public's desire to protect and conserve the broad array of New Mexico wildlife," she said. "This is a narrowing of the agency's mission and it's turning elk and deer into a commodity to fuel the agency's coffers."
While the department receives some federal funding, much of its $38 million annual budget comes from hunting and fishing license fees. Just over half of the money goes toward game programs while the rest is spent on conservation, wildlife depredation and administration.
Keefover accused the agency of catering to sportsmen because of the funding structure.
New Mexico sportsmen, however, have had their own battles with the agency and the Game Commission over political influence and a lack of hunting opportunities for residents. Those battles have spanned administrations and political parties.
Kirkpatrick said part of the aim of reorganization is to improve the department's customer service, as well as create an agency that can tackle wildlife issues on a landscape level by having biologists work more closely with one another.
"We hope that it precipitates much more understanding across expertise and across specialties and that all of our staff becomes much more cognizant of the totality of wildlife management and wildlife conservation. That will be a positive thing," he said.
The department has been working with the state personnel office, the governor's office and the Department of Finance and Administration on the reorganization. Officials are finalizing recommendations for the last phase, which involves job reclassifications.
The department will be flexible with the plan if there are things that need adjusting, Kirkpatrick said.
"Change bugs people," he said. "It tends to leave people in a fretful state of mind, but I think we'll work through all of that stuff."
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New Mexico is located in the southwestern region of the U.S. Inhabited by Native American populations for many centuries, New Mexico has also been part of Imperial Spain, part of Mexico, and a U.S. territory.