ALBUQUERQUE – The New Mexico Game and Fish Department wants to get tough on poachers who take the heads and antlers of elk, deer and other trophy animals and leave the meat behind to rot.
The department is supporting legislation introduced in the House that would make such poaching crimes a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico. Currently, these crimes are classified as misdemeanors.
Tougher penalties are needed as a deterrent to stop the waste of the state’s wildlife, said Col. Robert Griego, head of the department’s field operations division.
“It’s an increasing problem,” Griego told The Associated Press in an interview. “New Mexico’s wildlife, our big game, is some of the best in the world, and in turn it is very valuable so there is a market for it.”
Over the last two years, state conservation officers have investigated more than 200 cases in which big-game animals have been killed unlawfully and their carcasses left to rot.
The state in 2006 imposed stiffer civil penalties ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 for such crimes, but Game and Fish officers said the fines did not go far enough to put a dent in the problem.
Under the legislation introduced by Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, offenders could face 18 months in prison and criminal fines of up to $5,000 for a felony conviction. With a felony on their record, they also would lose their right to own firearms, Griego said.
“The punishment would pack some weight, which is what’s necessary,” he said.
Some critics have voiced concerns in letters and emails to the department regarding the harshness of the proposed penalties. However, there has been no organized movement against the bill.
The felony classification would apply to wasteful poaching crimes involving bighorn sheep, ibex, oryx, elk, deer and pronghorn antelope.
The legislation also would clarify language related to misdemeanor violations under the state’s hunting and fishing statutes, create additional penalty assessments for minor infractions and allow more time for the department to investigate and prosecute cases. Petty misdemeanors currently fall within a one-year statute of limitations.
Supporters of the bill have been distributing information packets to lawmakers that include details about the proposal along with graphic photographs of bloated, headless elk carcasses and collections of dead pronghorn antelope.
The bill has the support of the New Mexico Game Commission, the New Mexico Conservation Officers Association, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, the Council of Guides and Outfitters and other groups.
“We want to send poachers a message that stealing the state’s wildlife, whether for the thrill or for profit, is a serious crime with serious consequences,” Baldonado said.