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New report reignites debate around New Mexico’s elk private land use system

Bull elk pictured in the Valles Caldera, New Mexico.
Bull elk pictured in the Valles Caldera, New Mexico.

Debate surrounding a program that gives private landowners a significant portion of the elk hunting opportunities in New Mexico is coming to a head with the publication of a report outlining why it’s so crucial for land conservation.

Opponents say the program privatizes elk hunting, making it more available to those with deep pockets.

Elk are notorious for causing damage on private lands – as they usually compete with livestock and other animals for forage, knock down fences, and destroy crops.

New Mexico’s Elk Private Land Use System or EPLUS, is meant to offset these damages and incentivize private land conservation, especially when it comes to elk management.

The state does this by providing landowners with special elk “tags” that authorize kills in addition to the public draw or lottery process. Those private elk tags are then usually sold to out-of-state hunters – sometimes for as much as $20,000 a pop.

Leslie Allison is the CEO of the Western Landowners Alliance, who authored the new report. She said the EPLUS program keeps development off of private lands and helps small-scale farms and ranches stay economically sustainable.

“And the challenge we have today is that the economics don't really work to conserve that habitat,” Allison said. “That's why all these states continue to lose so much land to development every single year.” 

But others think the system itself is oppressive.

“It's kind of remarkable, because there's no other state in the entire West that has a system even close to the egregious level of privatization that takes place through the elk private land use system,” said Jessie Duebel, who’s an avid hunter and the executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation

Duebel said it is laughably difficult to draw an opportunity to hunt elk through the conventional lottery and would like to see a system similar to Utah’s – where hunters are given permits to hunt on private land.

“If we can meet somewhere in the middle, what we'll have is a durable solution that provides a more equitable access to the natural resources of this state for the residents of this state,” Duebel said.

This could be done a variety of ways, possibly by allowing landowners to charge trespass fees to hunters for land access. New Mexico already does this with other game animals such as pronghorn and deer and can cost anywhere from $500 to $750.

Around 38% of New Mexico’s elk tags are currently set aside for private use. The next closest comparable state is Nevada, which earmarks 3% of its tags.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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