Friday, January 15, 2010

Depredation reform a priority for NM environmental groups

Reforming a state law that allows landowners to kill wild game that cause property damage will be a priority issue for environmental groups at the state Legislature this year.

The Environmental Alliance of New Mexico announced its priorities this week at a briefing with reporters.

Depredation refers to the damage or loss caused by wildlife to private property, most notably when predators kill livestock or when grazing animals eat plants that have economic benefit to landowners. How to prevent or mitigate such damage has been an ongoing source of tension between ranchers, hunters, environmentalists, and farmers.

In 1997, the “Jennings amendment,” named for Sen. Tim Jennings, allowed property owners to kill wildlife if necessary to protect their property. Such killings have been a long simmering issue, but feelings boiled over in 2008 when a farmer near Cimarron killed at least 39 antelope that had been foraging on his winter wheat crop. Images of slaughtered antelope littering the property showed up on the evening news, igniting a vigorous public debate.

Because the state doesn’t own free roaming wildlife and people have the right to protect their property, how to mitigate wildlife damage to property without allowing landowners to kill the animals is a “contentious and difficult to resolve issue,” R.J. Kirkpatrick, Wildlife Management Division Chief with the Department of Game and Fish, said.

But while he expects it to continue being a controversial issue, wholesale killing of non-predatory animals isn’t an “ethical thing to do,” Kirkpatrick said. A bill that seeks a middle ground on the contentious issue will be sponsored this year by State Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

The 2010 legislation will separate animals into two categories: predators and grazers. Property owners would still be allowed to kill predators if they felt the animals were a threat to property, he said. But with foraging animals, property owners would have one of two options. The state will either purchase fencing for the property to cover the cost of keeping the animals out, or the state would help improve the property in such a way that wildlife could continue being on the property with minimal damage. This option would include purchasing seed for the animals to eat and improving water delivery systems.

When asked how the legislation is viewed by those in support of the current depredation law, Kirkpatrick said organizations like the Cattle Growers Association “weren’t high on the idea.” The main sticking point, he said, is that there continues to be no mechanism through which the state provides financial compensation for crops lost to foraging animals.

In addition to the depredation bill, the EANM will proactively support legislation by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Grants, to mandate energy efficient building codes for public structures. The legislation would mandate that buildings are designed to use half or less than half of the energy a conventional building of that type would use.

The EANM is composed of groups like Amigos Bravos, Conservation Voters New Mexico, the Sierra Club, and the NM Wildlife Federation. In addition to the proactive legislation they’re supporting this year–which has to be ruled germane to the 30 day budget session or be allowed by the Governor–they’ll also oppose legislation that seeks to rollback environmental regulations.