NM landowners battle state over hungry elk | VailDaily.com

NM landowners battle state over hungry elk

Associated Press Writer

CUBA, N.M. – The elk in New Mexico are big and beautiful – a hunter’s dream, a landowner’s nightmare.

Property owners across the state long have complained about wildlife overrunning their private land and destroying crops. But the problem is boiling over in the Sierra Nacimiento in northern New Mexico, where ranchers say they’re being ignored and wildlife managers aren’t doing enough to curb the damage or compensate them.

Some frustrated property owners say they are considering a last resort: shooting the hungry animals.

“We enjoy the elk. We don’t mind the elk being around but we cannot feed the elk. If it comes to feeding the elk or feeding our families, there’s no choice,” said Art Martinez, an outfitter and a spokesman for more than 30 landowners in the Cuba area.

Starting Tuesday, the state Game and Fish Department is holding a series of public meetings to consider proposals that would change the area’s hunting unit boundaries and how hunting tags are allocated to landowners who allow elk on their property. Currently, the formula doesn’t take into account agricultural damage.

Another proposal calls for giving more tags to private landowners as a form of compensation for elk damage.

Tim Frybarger, assistant chief of wildlife management with Game and Fish, said the department decides each year how many elk can be harvested. The hunting tags are then divided among public hunters and private landowners. Private land makes up about 15 percent of the area around the Sierra Nacimiento and Jemez Mountains so most of the tags go to the public, he said.

Some ranchers complain that the department picks and chooses who gets the private tags rather than allocating them based on acreage and elk damage, and that some landowners abuse the system.

Ross and Vi Garcia, who have more than 300 acres of cropland at the base of the Sierra Nacimiento, say the system isn’t fair.

Every morning before the sun peeks over the mountains on the Garcia ranch, elk chew on their alfalfa. The animals leave before the sun gets too high – only to return in the evening for another round.

The scene also is played out on their neighbor’s fields and on ranches bordering the Gila and Lincoln national forests in the south.

Other states also have had problems with wildlife damage, including Colorado, Oregon, Montana and Minnesota. The number of elk hunting permits were increased in Minnesota this year to keep that state’s growing population in check.

Ross Garcia said he hasn’t been able to cut alfalfa this year because of the hungry elk and that he’s constantly fixing fences knocked down by the animals. Last year, the Garcias lost about $30,000 due to the damage.

“It’s not the animals’ fault. It’s who manages the animals,” he said.

Like Garcia, many landowners accuse the Game and Fish Department of ignoring their concerns.

“We’ve tried to work with Game and Fish, but right now I tell you what Game and Fish might as well be communist China as far as I’m concerned,” said Ernie Torrez, whose family owns land north of Cuba. “They don’t care to help us. They don’t care to acknowledge the damage these animals do.”

Some landowners are hoping for legislation that would take away the agency’s authority. Others have suggested offering more hunting permits to private landowners, and some want the agency to inspect ranches to ensure only landowners who are feeding the elk with their crops get hunting permits.

Frybarger said the agency can’t make everyone happy. One of the problems is that any changes in the elk-landowner permit system in the Cuba area would have to be applied statewide. He also said that allocating more hunting permits would diminish the herd’s quality, meaning ranchers would not be able to sell their permits for as much money.

“Obviously somebody is going to be at the short end of the stick and so what do you do?” he asked.

Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, chairman of the Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee, said landowners, wildlife managers and legislators have been meeting to try to find a solution.

But Ross and Vi Garcia said they have attended their share of meetings, sent e-mails and met with game wardens about crop damage. They said getting more hunting permits from the agency in exchange for what the elk are taking from their fields is like “pulling teeth.”

The couple will be at Thursday’s meeting in Cuba, and Vi Garcia made a promise: “I am not backing off.”

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