Following on last week’s thoughts about predator reintroduction and the wolf reintroduction program specifically, I want to move to the broader question of game management. The “system” of game management in New Mexico is that all “game” (huntable) species are “owned” and “managed” by the Department of Game and Fish. This Agency is charged with maintaining healthy populations of all species through hunting and “management,” while protecting private property and public safety in the process. Generally this is accomplished through the system of licenses for hunting different species using different methods.
There are many factors that have to be considered in the management of different wild species. Overpopulation of a species leads to problems such as health in the overall population and starvation and disease at the individual level. Grazing animals like deer and antelope and elk are notorious for overpopulating when their populations are not methodically controlled. The predators that naturally would manage their numbers are no longer able to maintain themselves in sufficient numbers for the task without spilling over into human populated areas. Conflict between grazing and predator populations and human populations is a problem as humans push our homes into the edges of wilderness and animals move further in search of food, especially during the droughts that are the hallmark of our changing climate. Human beings have become important predators for these grazing species, and the Agency is responsible to assure that a balance is maintained between human hunting pressure and the population of different species.
At Mesa Top we had the experience for years of deer grazing in the vegetable fields in the fall, after the monsoons were over, and we had pretty much harvested all we needed from the vegetable gardens. It was quite idyllic. Out the kitchen window we saw Bambi and mom nibbling the kale. Then in 2002 when the drought hit hard, and spring came, and there was little or no vegetation for miles, Bambi and mom came in the spring, ripping off row covers and eat thousands of baby plant starts in a single night! Were they “bad” animals? Not at all, they were doing what they are supposed to do: survive. But their needs were at cross purposes with ours.
At that time we had just begun a program called “partners for fish and wildlife” under a US Fish and Wildlife Department grant. We were improving habitat about ¼ mile away from the farm headquarters. USFWS spends taxpayer dollars to enhance populations. Now we had a problem with the same species. NM Game and fish offered to come shoot the deer that USFWS was paying us to “enhance”. It IS every person’s right to have their property protected from damage and loss by game animals, and NM Game and Fish is responsible for assuring that safety.
I declined their offer; they installed a temporary electric fence which the deer soon ignored. I slept out on the balcony with the dogs and whenever the deer came into the field, the dogs growled (adult deer are pretty rank) and I would fire off a few rounds of rubber buckshot in their direction. By fall I could walk out in the field among the deer and shoot the buckshot at them point blank and they’d run a few yards away and look at me funny. The following spring, NM Game and Fish funded a deer exclusion fence that keeps the deer out and the garden safe. I hope the deer enjoy their enhanced riparian browsing area, up canyon by the old windmill.
What if that was a family of lions, coming to eat the chickens? Or to kill the baby calves? Of course there are steps that any landowner can and should take to keep our livestock safe from predators. And the numbers of predators have to be managed in ways that are effective as well. Currently the Department of Game and Fish is under extraordinary pressure, again from urban based environmental groups, to curtail hunting of major fur-bearing predators including bear and mountain lion. Although every bit of science and reconnaissance says that these species are generally thriving and their numbers are increasing, private ranchers are being asked to give up their right to earn a living and to effectively manage their resources so that the territories for these predators can expand.
Large predators each operate on significant territories. Too many predators in an area create conflict amongst themselves over territories and significantly increase predation: leading to predators eating non-game animals such as livestock and pets. Overpopulating predators have to eat something! And domesticated animals are easier targets, especially for individuals who are not successfully establishing dominance. Overpopulating predators place humans and their domesticated animals at increasing risk.
Generally only humans are predators to other predators. It is sad and unfortunate when predator and game populations get out of balance and their numbers have to be reduced. But it is a fact of life in our time. What a horrible waste to allow hundreds and thousands of animals to live unhealthy, stressed lives as individuals, eventually endangering the overall health and viability of the species, rather than taking collective responsibility for keeping them healthy. Hunting and effective game and predator management insures quality of life for individuals and survival of the species. When carried out with the respect that our Native people have for nature and for the Creator who has placed these species on earth, it is a moral and sustaining process. It is dangerous to ignore these facts; dangerous for the animals and for people.
I hope that members and friends reading this post will consider the responsibility that we humans carry to balance quality of life for all species with the right to live and work of our farmers and ranchers. ALL game management decisions need to consider the well being of all species, individually and collectively. Opposition to predator management does not live up to that standard.