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Commission hears update on deer population control issue

The Grant County Commission met in regular session Thursday and addressed a long agenda.

County Manager Jon Paul Saari asked to move his county report to right after public input to allow Ray Aaltonen, district chief out of Las Cruces of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, to give an update on the agency's initiative to address the problem of too many deer in inhabited parts of the county.

During public input, Sharon McGrath, co-chair of the Senior Advisory Council in the Mimbres, spoke.

"It used to be that the Senior Center delivered commodities to homebound seniors," McGrath said. "Why did it stop? We scrambled to get volunteers. Right now, the center is just a glorified restaurant. We wonder why Grant County isn't there for us."

It was suggested she give her phone number to Randy Hernandez, administrative assistant, to allow the facilitation of a meeting between her and Terry Trujillo, Senior Services director.

Saari introduced David Gorman, who will serve as an independent contractor as attorney for the county, following the resignation of in-house attorney Abby Robinson. Then Saari introduced Aaltonen.

Aaltonen said the Game and Fish Department has started its initiative to address the problem of too many deer. The plan is three-pronged, including lethal shooting, trapping and transplanting, and using local hunters.

"We started with trap and transplant," Aaltonen said. "We used a small trap, but in 137 hours on trap nights, we caught only six deer. The nets were not effective. We transplanted three bucks and three does to three release sites."

He said the department would try larger nets. Also one of the sites off Cold Springs Ranch Road might have to be re-evaluated after the fire.

The second phase began May 25. It consisted of lethal removal on private property at the invitation of the property owners.

"We shoot in the head at close range, so it is a quick drop," Aaltonen said. "We removed 17 does and eight bucks. Once we shoot them, we sell the meat to citizens in Grant County whose names we get from Human Services. We sell for $1 and give them a receipt to allow them to have deer meat."

Another option for selling the meat is to the group in Las Cruces, Hunters for the Hungry, which buys the deer and has them butchered to give to soup kitchens.

The agency also has a list of names to which it may sell road kill or seized animals.

"We will suspend the program while the fawns are dropping," Aaltonen said. "We don't want to leave any orphans. We will start the program again in the fall. Our four- to five-year plan is to consistently keep the population down."

The third phase of the initiative will be to try to get local hunters.

"We have proposed to the board that after archery season, in units three and four around Silver City, we will relax requirements after buck season, which ends January 16," Aaltonen said. "For those who were not successful in bagging a buck, we will let them go for a doe on private land with permission."

Commissioner Gabriel Ramos asked how one gets permission.

"Usually it is for hunters who have requested assistance," Aaltonen said.

"We are aware that many people are not in favor of lethal take, because they file complaints with us," he continued. "We scope the situation out in the daytime and shoot at night."

Commissioner Christy Miller said her concern is for better notification of property owners.

Commission Chairman Brett Kasten asked if it would be too much to notify the sheriff of where the take is planned, so if people call Dispatch, they could tell them what is happening.

"We can do that," Aaltonen said. "It varies on our schedule, but it will be part of our protocol. Nothing is done within the city limits, because the discharge of firearms is not allowed. That is why we wanted smaller nets for in-town needs."

Kasten asked: "Why is it when we're hunting, we might see two bucks in 10 days, but as soon as we get back to town, we see 20?"

"It's a matter of protection," Aaltonen said. "Vehicles and free-ranging dogs are the worse enemies of the deer in town. But the deer have succulent vegetation and healthy habitat. Ruidoso, Raton and Las Vegas have the same problems. We're tracking our costs and manpower because it can be a financial drain."

Miller asked if it were unlawful to feed deer.

"It is unlawful to hunt over bait," Aaltonen replied, "and we do have a statute for nuisance. This situation is past the enjoyment of wildlife. People can't have rose bushes or fruit trees. We're trying to get the deer population to a manageable number."

Ramos said: "If we can use the forest, what about habitat funding for use in the forest?"

Aaltonen said the area has a representative in the agency to use that funding on habitat and where to use it. "All of the funding is being paid by sportsmen with the $5 habitat stamp."

The rest of the meeting will be addressed in future articles.

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