A lifelong resident of the southern New Mexico town of Deming, Ray Trejo has hunted ever since he could walk. It's a family tradition he shares with his wife and both their sons, who are now in their 20s.
But about 15 years ago, Trejo's luck started running out in the pronghorn hunting-license lottery. "I was always led to believe -- from (the New Mexico Department of) Game and Fish -- that that was because of the drought we were under, and that there was less antelope tags being given," says the bowhunter. Then, a few years ago, Trejo learned that private landowners control most opportunities to hunt pronghorn (commonly called antelope) -- even on public lands where they hold grazing allotments. New Mexico's Antelope Private Lands Use System (A-PLUS) gives participating landowners "authorization certificates" that they can then auction, trade or sell to hunters and outfitters, often for thousands of dollars. The buyer can then use the certificate to purchase an actual hunting license for the land from the Department of Game and Fish.
New Mexico landowners received 4,004 antelope certificates in 2009, according to records obtained by the nonprofit New Mexico Wildlife Federation. In contrast, just 1,785 licenses went into the lottery system. Because state law mandates that a certain percentage of those go to out-of-state applicants, some 12,711 New Mexico hunters competed for just 1,432 licenses. "No one here had any idea the degree to which our licenses had really been privatized," says Jeremy Vesbach, the group's executive director. "It has turned into a system where 70 percent are being resold rather than everybody getting an equal chance with the draw." States are supposed to manage wildlife in trust for the public, he adds, with hunters funding it through taxes and fees.
Many New Mexico hunters say the system is unfair. In 2005, sportsmen tried to reform similar rules for elk, but failed when both landowners and the Department of Game and Fish resisted. This fall, they've been asking the agency's seven-member commission to reform the antelope program. Vesbach wants New Mexico to adopt the system other Western states use: distributing tags through a lottery and having hunters pay trespass fees to willing landowners. That method encourages landowners to improve habitat -- those with trophy bucks can charge higher fees -- but they don't profit directly from the public's wildlife. Montana reformers achieved a similar goal in the recent election, passing an initiative that increased big game license fees for out-of-state hunters by about $200. It also abolished outfitter-sponsored licenses, thereby increasing the number of big-game tags available to locals.
At least a few of New Mexico's Game Commission members are in favor of reforming A-PLUS, which has been in place, though not codified, for decades. Commissioner Kent Salazar believes tags should be the property of the state, not something that private citizens can distribute. At the commission's October meeting, he also proposed amending the system so certificates can only be used on a rancher's private land, and not on adjacent public-lands grazing leases. "That passed," he says, "but there was such an uproar at the meeting that we decided to revisit it." Then, at a Dec. 9 meeting in Clovis, N.M., the commission voted 4-3 to codify A-PLUS essentially as is, without amendments.
The existing program works well for landowners, argues Darrel Weybright, New Mexico's big game program supervisor. Ranchers, who own most of the state's antelope habitat, are "happy to participate because meat prices are down, and it's hard to make a living in a semi-arid landscape," he explains. The extra money they earn is a hedge against selling out, subdivision and habitat fragmentation.
"Based on the free market, they can sell to who they want," says Weybright. And New Mexican hunters could also buy the authorization certificates, he adds, although not many do. That may be because most are what Vesbach calls "blue jeans" hunters, who can't afford premium prices.
Weybright admits the situation is difficult, but calls it a "wonderful study of social issues meeting wildlife management." Despite the commission's decision, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation plans to continue trying to reform the system. Any commissioner can request that a rule be reconsidered, says the group's spokesman, Joel Gay, and new commissioners selected by the incoming governor might think less favorably of the program.
Ray Trejo isn't optimistic.
Hunting families are losing their enthusiasm for big game draws, he says, because they don't ever win. "If we're not careful, we'll be extinct, and it'll be a rich man's game."
This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.