A battle is brewing between ranchers and sportsmen over a new regulation that would allow the state to penalize hunters who stray onto unfenced, unposted private land.
A licensed hunter who trespasses onto even a fenced and well-posted ranch and shoots a trophy elk can be charged with criminal trespass, but the hunter is not necessarily violating state hunting rules. And the absence of a hunting rules violation would mean the Game & Fish Department wouldn't have the authority to seize the trophy — something that irks wardens, landowners and law-abiding sportsmen.
"Somebody can sneak on my property. And if they've got a tag valid for my unit, they keep their bull. They get a trespass ticket," said Dan Brooks, Game & Fish's chief of law enforcement.
The state Game Commission recently approved a change — effective April 1 — that would make such trespassing a violation of hunting rules and allow officers to confiscate ill-gotten elk.
But New Mexico Wildlife Federation executive director Jeremy Vesbach said the new regulation is too broad and also would apply to hunters who unknowingly stray onto patches of unmarked private lands that checkerboard some of the state's hunting grounds — branding those hunters as poachers in the process.
The federation and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, which wants the regulation to remain as it is, are marshaling opposing forces for a special Game Commission meeting on the matter Jan. 10.
"We want to have the highest penalties we can for the poachers," said Vesbach. But "when Game & Fish went to fix (the rules), they made it too broad."
Caren Cowan, executive director of the cattle growers, said hunters should have the responsibility of knowing where they are at all times while in the field.
As a landowner, "posting doesn't do you a lot of good. People shoot up the signs, tear them down," Cowan said. "Private property is private property. And if someone trespasses, there's a penalty for that."
State law defines criminal trespass as "knowingly" going onto posted private property without having written permission from the landowner. To comply with the posting requirement, ranchers must post notices at access points such as roadways — and if the land is unfenced, they must post notices every 500 feet.
The new hunting regulation doesn't make any reference to posting requirements and specifies only that public-land elk licenses are not valid on private lands without written permission. Hunters breaking the rule would be committing a separate game-law violation, subjecting them to fines and confiscation of their trophies.
A similar written-permission rule has been in place for the past several years for deer hunters, Brooks said.
Vesbach said the federation wants the new regulation narrowed to include the word "knowingly" and to specify that it applies to properly posted private lands. Several other New Mexico outdoors groups back such a change.
"The idea is to protect the person who's hunting BLM or Forest Service (land) and accidentally crosses an unmarked, unfenced boundary," Vesbach said. "You can't rely on a map and know you're OK. They (maps) don't keep up with land trades."
The Game Commission during a meeting earlier this month was slated to consider a new, broader trespassing rule that includes language on posting requirements but postponed the matter.