Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Removes NM State Game Commission Vice Chair Jeremy Vesbach

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For the second time in her term, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has removed a state game commissioner from office after they spoke up for the public’s right to access public waters.
 
Lujan Grisham’s office on Tues., Jan. 11, notified Jeremy Vesbach, a career conservationist, that she was removing him from the game commission. He had been serving as commission vice chair and still had a year left to serve in his term.
 
Vesbach led the commission last summer in its vote to reject five applications from private landowners who had sought commission approval to close public rivers or streams that crossed their lands to public access.
 
The New Mexico Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in March on a challenge brought by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and other groups to the game commission’s “non-navigable rule.” 
 
The rule, which took effect in 2018, purports to allow landowners to petition the game commission to certify that rivers and streams that cross their property are non-navigable. Under the rule, such a finding results in the waters being closed to public access.
 
The NMWF and other groups maintain that the commission’s non-navigable rule violates provisions of the New Mexico State Constitution and an earlier NM Supreme Court ruling that states the public has a right to access the waters of the state provided they don’t trespass on private lands to reach them. 
 
At a commission hearing last August, Vesbach said he couldn’t vote to approve any of the five pending landowner applications. The landowners had secured a federal court order to force the commission to act on their applications following a commission moratorium on addressing them.
 
“I think it’s a denial of the public’s constitutional right to deny access to the streambed,” Vesbach said last summer, explaining his votes against the applications. He added that it’s well known that people have floated watercraft on several of the rivers at issue, including the Rio Chama and Pecos River.
 
Lujan Grisham two years ago removed Joanna Prukop as chair of the commission after the commission under Prukop’s leadership imposed a moratorium on acting on pending non-navigable permit applications. Prukop has said the governor removed her because of the stream-access issue.
 
Lujan Grisham has accepted campaign contributions from out-of-state landowners who have applied to close rivers and streams under the non-navigable rule. Lujan Grisham’s media office did not return a message from the NMWF on Tuesday seeking comment on Vesbach’s removal.
 
In an interview Tuesday with the NMWF, Vesbach said his approach to conservation clashed with Lujan Grisham’s.
 
“The governor right now is trying to sit on the fence, and that’s what got me tangled up,” Vesbach said. “I’m not a fence-sitter. I’m not going to sit meekly, idly by and watch our waters get privatized, and our public land get privatized and lose access to public land for hunting.”
 
Vesbach said he believes Lujan Grisham needs to hear from New Mexico sportsmen.  
“I think it’s still possible to move her,” Vesbach said. “And she said the right things during her campaign but she needs to deliver. I got tangled up for pushing too hard from the inside. But I think it’s still possible, and I think that people need to keep pushing and not give up because we have made progress since 2004, and it’s been progress by inches.”
 
Vesbach said the last two governors made modest improvements for resident hunters in terms of numbers of permits allocated to resident hunters. “But this governor, despite campaign promises, has yet to move the needle at at all and it’s time to take action on that,” he said.
 
Vesbach moved to New Mexico 20 years ago from Montana. He started working at the NMWF, and played a key role in resurrecting the organization after a period in which it had nearly disappeared.
 
Vesbach is currently western lands program director with Western Resource Advocates, a group that works on land and wildlife policy issues around the West. Vesbach said New Mexico needs to reform its game commission laws to insulate commissioners from political influence.
 
“The system’s broken,” Vesbach said. He noted that the NMWF worked early in the last century to set up an independent game commission to serve as a firewall between sound wildlife management and politics. However, he said a more recent NM Supreme Court decision left game commissioners serving at the whim of the governor.
 
“It is no longer any shield against politics whatsoever,” Vesbach said of the commission system. He pointed to Lujan Grisham’s removal of Prukop as an example.
“I would say that Joanna was the most qualified chair that I’m aware of in history,” Vesbach said. “She was the first woman.”
 
Before taking over as the first woman to chair the game commission, Prukop served as the secretary of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. Before that, she worked for 25 years at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. After leaving state government, she served in President Barack Obama’s administration as a three-term appointee to the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council. She holds a master’s degree in wildlife biology from Colorado State University.
 
Prukop said Tuesday that Lujan Grisham’s removal of Vesbach raises her concerns and suspicions about manipulation of the state game commission and its decision making. She said his removal shows the need for, “serious consideration of reform for how the state game commission is appointed and protected.”
 
Prukop said Vesbach has outstanding qualifications to serve on the commission and is committed to sound conservation. “I can not name a person who has more integrity than Jeremy Vesbach,” she said.
 
Jesse Deubel, executive director of the NMWF, said Tuesday he was saddened and disappointed to see Lujan Grisham remove Vesbach. 
 
“Jeremy’s been a hard-working, dedicated commissioner and a champion of public land hunters and anglers,” Deubel said. “It’s a deep blow to our state to see him removed from the commission. This move by the governor underscores again the need for real reform to insulate commissioners from undue political influence.”
 
In addition to Vesbach’s stand opposing the stream access applications, he has also been vocal in calling for the game department management to improve pay for department workers, especially conservation officers and biologists.
 
The commission received a briefing late last year that nearly one-third of conservation officer districts are open. The agency lags far behind neighboring states and other in-state law enforcement agencies in terms of officer pay.
 
“Our conservation officers in New Mexico are 20 percent lower than our neighboring states in pay, and our biologists and other staff are not far behind, and we need to be more competitive.,” Vesbach said last year. “We’re losing good people.”
 
Vesbach said Tuesday he’s been frustrated with leadership provided by NMDGF Director Mike Sloane.
 
“The meekness at the top, in terms of not advocating for our people, is not getting the job done,” Vesbach said. He said the vacancy rate for law enforcement must be among the highest for any agency in the country. 
 
Vesbach said he will continue to be involved and outspoken about New Mexico conservation issues. 
 
“I’m not cowed,” Vesbach said, adding that he believes his removal should leave everyday hunters and anglers around the state fired up, not demoralized.
 
“This is a call to action, and to keep at it,” Vesbach said of his removal. “Like Joanna, if doing the right thing gets me removed from a seat, I’ll do the right thing all day long and I think most people would do the same who are kind of advocating for the future of hunting opportunity. 
 
“Making hunting for the rich only, that’s not good for anyone,” Vesbach said. “We’ve got this incredible history in the United States of people who fought hard to establish hunting and fishing for all. And if we lose that access to hunting and fishing for everybody, we lose hunting and fishing. As soon as it’s a rich man’s sport only, it’s gone.”
Source: NM Wildlife Federation
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