Federal judge issues ruling in fight over New Mexico hunting law

Albuquerque, N.M. (AP) – A federal judge on Thursday sided partly with a group of outfitters from four Western states who complained their constitutional rights to conduct business in New Mexico were being upended by changes to the state's hunting draw.

The outfitters had asked U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo to issue an injunction and temporary restraining order to keep New Mexico's law from taking effect.

The outfitters are challenging language that specifies 10 percent of hunting tags awarded through New Mexico's annual big game draw would go to those hunters who hired New Mexico-based outfitters.
Before the law was changed last year, an outfitter's location didn't matter.

"This is brand new and that's why we challenged it,'' said Albuquerque attorney B.J. Crow, who is representing the plaintiffs. "Basically, it was excluding any out-of-state outfitter from doing business in New Mexico, which is unconstitutional.''

Armijo ruled that the plaintiffs who operate as individual outfitters or sole proprietors would be eligible for the 10 percent pool for this year's draw. The plaintiffs include outfitters from Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and Washington.

Armijo has yet to make a final determination on whether New Mexico's statute is constitutional. Crow said the case could take up to five months, and the outcome could affect countless out-of-state outfitters as well as hunters.

Jeremy Vesbach, director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said he was relieved the judge's order keeps intact for the next draw new quotas established by the statute.

The law spells out how many New Mexico residents, non-residents and outfitters can be awarded hunting tags through the draw system. Tens of thousands of hunting licenses are sold in the state every year, and a portion of those are doled out through the draw by the state Game and Fish Department.

The quota system was changed last year after some sportsmen fought to ensure in-state hunters received a larger portion of the hunting tags. On average, New Mexico had the lowest preference for resident hunters _ less than 80 percent – of any state in the Rocky Mountain region.

"We essentially are caught in the crossfire here and the question was do we dodge a bullet or not,'' Vesbach said. "I'm just relieved. The judge spent a lot of time on this and I think she came up with something that really minimized the overall disruption and kept folks like us from getting harmed.''

Hunting, guiding and outfitting are part of a big business in New Mexico, where rural communities depend on money spent by outdoor enthusiasts. Studies have shown hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation annually contribute billions of dollars to the state's economy.

Crow said if his clients weren't allowed to do business in New Mexico this year, it would have meant thousands of dollars of lost revenue for each one.

The deadline to apply for this year's draw is March 28. So far, some 70,000 hunters have applied.

"It's our lifeblood. For those of us who hunt, if we get a tag or not, it's a huge deal,'' Vesbach said.

Game Department officials said they still intend on having the draw in early May.

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