(The Center Square) - Some New Mexican ranchers who have suffered damage from growing elk herds are suing the state's Department of Game and Fish for lack of protection and for not allowing them to sell hunting permits.
Elk were reintroduced to the state in the last century and their populations have been growing ever since. Now, as New Mexico finds itself in a severe drought, the grazing animals are using up resources on ranchland, costing ranchers money, they claim.
Tom Paterson, vice chairman of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association's wildlife committee and owner/operator of Spur Ranch LLC, said the elk herds have become "ubiquitous" in certain areas such as the Gila Forest, where the eight ranchers bringing the lawsuit operate.
"They've gone from what used to be a relatively small number of head to somewhere the department estimates, I believe, it's somewhere between 83,000 and 125,000 head," Paterson told The Center Square.
The large cervids destroy fences, consume forage, pasture and water on ranchers' property, according to Paterson.
"If they fertilize, they irrigate, and the elk just swarm to their property, what can they do?" he said.
Elk-proof fencing, the only way to keep them out, is expensive, said Paterson, which means it's even more imperative that the state do its job of managing the herds. But the lawsuit argues state officials are not doing it.
Paterson said there is no "apparent" coordination between Game and Fish and other state services to manage elk populations on the land properly.
"When the Department of Game and Fish, which manages the elk herd in New Mexico, comes up with its every four-year big game target numbers, they asked for input from the Forest Service, but whether the Forest Service actually responds is not at all clear and there's no particular evidence of it occurring," Paterson said.
Selling hunting permits to hunters wanting to bag an elk is another way for ranchers to recoup on the costs of elk damage. The permits sell for anywhere from $10,000 to $18,000, according to Zeno Kiehne, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, as reported by KRQE.
Game and Fish continue to deny the eight ranchers permission to sell tags, even while some of the plaintiffs' neighbors are granted it, KRQE reported.
"Game and Fish Department isn't doing anything apparently to manage or control the number of elk that are still on the landscape," Paterson said. "So it's the ranchers to bear much of the cost of having these large elk herds out on the landscape. And that is not wise stewardship."