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Caldera series conclusion: Hunters, anglers seek equal access

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By Arin McKenna

Conclusion of four-part series

Increased access to the Valles Caldera National Monument and the demise of a system that favors the wealthy, rate high for many groups supporting S. 285.

“I see the trust, which manages the national preserve now, as basically locking out the public,” said Oscar Simpson, state chair of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“Game and Fish has basically allowed the preserve to charge all kinds of fees so they could raise money. I would say the way the trust manages it, the more money you have, the better chance you have to go hunt or fish–especially hunt–in the Valles Caldera.”

BHA and other S. 285 supporters such the New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF) believe that a national preserve would provide equitable hunting and fishing opportunities.

A press release issued by NMWF delineates some of the current practices.

“Some Valles Caldera turkey hunts sell for $1,200 apiece. Other turkey access permits are sold through a lottery, but hunters can buy an unlimited number of lottery tickets, giving those with deep pockets greater chances of getting to hunt.”

Other practices, such as allowing hunters to submit as many as 20 applications for a single hunt (only one application is allowed elsewhere in New Mexico) and weekend fishing fees that cost $80 for a family of four, similarly limit access for those with moderate incomes.

NMWF warns that “Sportsmen nationwide should be concerned about the potential for this privatization of public land hunting and fishing spreading elsewhere, robbing opportunity from sportsmen of average means.”

The preserve has also raised money by offering elk and wild turkey permits for auction.

When Valles Caldera opened for hunting in 2002, the five available bull elk permits were auctioned off.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) and Safari Club International (two of the groups opposing the current legislation) auctioned two each, with two permits going for $12,000 and two for $15,000 apiece. Another was offered on eBay for a minimum bid of $10,000.

Valles Caldera received half of that money, with the other half retained by the organizations which held the auctions.

Auctioning elk permits ended after 2003, when State Attorney General Patricia A. Madrid rendered an opinion that the auctions violated New Mexico Game and Fish regulations, which mandate that a certain percentage of licenses issued from a special drawing, must be issued to New Mexicans.

As recently as 2009, the New Mexico House of Representatives passed H.B. 11, which would have allowed 25 percent of VCNP’s bull elk licenses to be auctioned off at an estimated value of $10,000 or more. New Mexico hunting groups rallied to stop the bill in the senate.

Turkey tags continue to be offered for auction to organizations such as RMEF. RMEF would also like to see the return of elk tag auctions.

According to RMEF Director of Communications Mark Holyoak, the Elk Foundation has donated $40,000 from hunting license auctions back to the preserve. Holyoak evaded questions about how much money RMEF has made from the auctions, but Valles Caldera Communications and Marketing Manager Terry McDermott confirmed that all auctions are a 50/50 split.

“We’ve done the same thing with the turkey tags that we did with the elk opportunities, in that we take the tags and auction them off, and then take funds and return those to Caldera so they can use that for on the ground for wildlife conservation projects, which is a practice that we actually use to help different places around the country, and states as well,” Holyoak said.

“We do similar things with the State of New Mexico Game and Fish. They will offer tags and we’ll auction those off and return those funds to the state for their projects.

“In recent years we’ve asked if elk tags could be made available, since there’s a demand for them. Again, as a fundraising mechanism for the preserve itself.”

Holyoak insisted that RMEF’s resistance to the Valles Caldera legislation was unrelated to the auction income.

“We’re not concerned about that at all. We’re concerned about having lands that are available now and open for hunting remains that way, and this legislation has the possibility of closing it,” Holyoak said.
“It doesn’t affect us one way or the other. We don’t use this as a fundraising or a marketing tool. Our fundraising is done through our chapters. This is nothing. This is to help the lands on which the hunts take place.”

Groups such as BHA believe that disenfranchising the average sportsman is too high a price to pay for that “help.”

“I think that’s a bad North American model to have. I think the trust’s actions are not parallel with the way our sportsmen want to see our public lands managed and accessed. We want equal access to the wildlife, to hunt or fish or just to recreate, just to be able to look at.”