Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Up Front

Pronghorn antelope rounded up by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish sprint to freedom as they are released at Santa Ana Pueblo.
—Alan Hatch, Department of Natural Resources, Pueblo of Santa Ana

Pronghorn antelope race across Santa Ana Pueblo and staff from its Department of Natural Resources track them from the air.
Photo credit: —Catherine Nishida, Department of Natural Resources, Pueblo of Santa Ana

Antelope caught in conflicting visions for wildlife

—Bill Diven

At the intersection of white man’s ways and tribal culture, we find the poor pronghorn antelope, the swift-footed creature absent for decades from most of its historic range in Sandoval County.

To the people of Santa Ana Pueblo the antelope is a spiritual friend, free to roam at will among all wildlife. But to the New Mexico Game Commission, the antelope is state property to be managed in part for public hunting. And therein lies a speed bump in Santa Ana’s quest to restore its wildlife and habitat, while maintaining its ancient traditions.

“Our way of life perpetuates agriculture and wildlife,” Santa Ana Gov. Lawrence A. Montoya told the Signpost. “We follow the path our ancestors set. It’s just that our land base is smaller.”

Over the decades, that land base, once spread over a large chunk of north-central New Mexico and now hemmed by map lines and two major highways, took a beating from drought, grazing, and invasive plants crowding. Hunting, poaching, and the conversion of surrounding ecosystems into urban development took their toll on the animals as well.

In public presentations, wildlife managers quote elders as saying forty years passed with no antelope on the pueblo. Ceremonies and dances connected to the wildlife continue even without the animals present for the new generations.

“The thought process was that maybe they’d come back on their own,” Montoya said.

That thought process changed in the late 1990s as Santa Ana, through grants and tribal funding, embarked on an ambitious plan to revive the natural physical state. It would be a challenge on 79,000 acres stretching from Bernalillo, Rio Rancho, and Placitas on the south into the Jemez Mountains high country on the north.

The tribe forged ahead establishing a Department of Natural Resources, employing wildlife and habitat experts, installing solar-power wells to feed dozens of troughs and drinkers and attacking invasive plants. The tribal council enacted a wildlife code and placed a moratorium on hunting, while tribal members, especially young people, were encouraged to respect the animals.

Other pueblos began to take notice.

“You’re replenishing the land; you’re replenishing the people,” Zia Pueblo Gov. David Pino said during a public meeting at Santa Ana in October. “I see antelope. I see elk. I see deer. I tell my sons, ‘Leave your guns at home, and take your camera.’”

Wildlife managers collared animals to track movements and conduct counts to monitor populations. The Natural Resources and Agriculture departments also joined forces on projects including a vineyard, planted in cooperation with Gruet Winery east of Interstate 25 near Placitas.

Now treated rangeland shows native plants and grasses returning, bird numbers and diversity increasing, and wildlife populations rebounding. Cameras at watering sites record 67 species of small and large game including bear, mountain lion, elk, and herds of mule deer. Reintroduced turkeys skitter through revitalized bosque along the Rio Grande where a bull elk has been spotted less than a mile from I-25.

Then there’s the pronghorn antelope, sixty of them released at two locations in 2009-2010 through roundups and transfers, authorized by the Game Commission and partially underwritten by Santa Ana. Tribal managers say scientific literature indicates releasing one hundred antelope is needed for a sustainable population, and they thought they’d done all that was requested to get another forty.

Instead, they came up short when the Game Commission met in Española on November 1. Tribal representatives “got a chilly reception” and “appeared stunned,” according the New Mexico Wildlife Federation’s account of the meeting.

A year earlier, commissioners expressed concern about antelope being killed after straying onto some of the five nearby pueblos. So Santa Ana consulted its neighbors and returned with four of the five agreeing to protect the antelope through tribal codes and traditional ways. Santa Ana also added a plan to fence 11 miles of trouble spots to keep the animals on its land.

But commissioners raised fresh questions about the state’s antelope being locked away on tribal lands where the public couldn’t hunt them, according to minutes of the November meeting. Several commissioners suggested a memorandum of understanding, an agreement between the state and tribe that could open the door to outsiders hunting on tribal lands.

While Santa Ana now allows hunting of big game by tribal members who draw for limited tags, it would take a well-established antelope population before hunting them could be considered. And whether the tribal council would allow outsiders to hunt on the pueblo remains an open question.

In a recent interview, Bill Montoya, the commission vice chairman and a former director of the state Department of Game and Fish, said the ongoing drought has reduced overall antelope numbers leading the commission to focus on locations that allow public hunting.

“Eventually we’ll try to get antelope on those (tribal) areas,” Montoya said. “However, we need to try to come to some agreement where those antelope continue to be state animals… It’s a little different dealing with tribal land. In our view, animals within the state belong to the state, to the people of the state of New Mexico.”

Wildlife Federation Executive Director Garrett VeneKlasen said he considers Santa Ana Pueblo to be visionary in its stewardship ethic and its concept for a wildlife corridor connecting the Sandia and Manzano mountains through Placitas, the pueblo, and into the Jemez and farther north.

“They have an amazing track record of habitat restoration and wildlife management,” he said. “I won’t pretend to understand the depth of their religion, but it’s important they have these animals on their landscape for religious, spiritual, and cultural reasons.”

VeneKlasen also noted irony in the Game Commission response on two fronts: a hundred years ago, New Mexico had killed off its elk, forcing the state to import animals from outside for a restoration program, and much of the public wildlife roams private and state lease land where the state issues multiple hunting permits to the owners and lessees.

“Some forty percent of all elk allocations go to private landowners automatically, so there’s some real hypocrisy,” he said. “It’s a public resource. Free-ranging wildlife is held in the public trust whether it’s on your land or public land.”

Technically speaking, the pronghorn is not a true antelope but resembles the old world animal enough to carry the name. It, too, seemed headed toward extinction before a conservation group and others established a refuge and recovery program in Nevada in the 1930s. The pronghorn is considered the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere easily topping 35 mph with 55 mph bursts over short distances.

Santa Ana’s vision of a wildlife corridor expressed in public presentations is currently focused on 3,400 acres of federal land in northwestern Placitas known as the Buffalo Tract. The land is included in a resource-management plan that may be released this month by the Bureau of Land Management, which may designate the tract for disposal.

The land also abuts San Felipe Pueblo, and both tribes say they have aboriginal claims to it. Meanwhile, the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant, with roots in the founding of Placitas, says it wants part of the tract, and advocates for the free-roaming horses in Placitas think it would make a splendid refuge and state park for the horses, and residents of Algodones want flood-control on the tract to protect their community.

Commercial interests have yet to speak up, but the tract has potential for residential development and the mining of sand and gravel, estimated to be worth at least a billion dollars.

Gravel miner wins annexation into Bernalillo

—Signpost Staff

After years of effort, and with numerous strings attached, the Fisher gravel mine is now part of Bernalillo.

Bernalillo town councilors unanimously approved the annexation of the 43-acre property at their January 12 meeting. It was the fourth time the council considered the annexation after last tabling the request in February 2014 after listening to nearly twenty protestors and asking for more information.

This time, critics of Fisher Sand and Gravel Inc. focused less on blocking the annexation and more on assuring that the town enforces the number of conditions applied to the property previously governed by a county permit.

“How will the town control an operation the county did not?” Ed Majka of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association said citing a history of alleged violations.

Among the major conditions is limiting the mining and processing to seven years, although councilors agreed during the meeting to add another two years to remove stockpiled material.

“We’re not happy with seven years; we wanted five,” Chris Daul, another ES-CA member said during public comment on the annexation. “We’d still object to extending seven to nine.”

The mine is east of Interstate 25, near the south Bernalillo exit, and is accessed by an unpaved frontage road off State Route 165 at the north Bernalillo exit. It’s been inactive for about two years, other than an occasional move of material previously mined there.

“We’re glad it’s happened and hope to work with the community,” said David Olson, a Placitas resident and Fisher’s vice president of operations. “This will be beneficial to both the community and Fisher.”

Beyond taxes from the sale of sand and gravel, Bernalillo stands to gain in flood control. Fisher has agreed to first mine a seven-acre tract spanning a major arroyo and donate the land to the Eastern Sandoval County Flood Control Authority.

ESCAFCA Executive Engineer Larry Blair told councilors the land donation saves up to twenty thousand dollars, and, if the excavation conforms to the agency’s needs, saves another five hundred thousand dollars in constructing ponding areas to catch and slow storm runoff. It also allows ESCAFCA to start work on the project this year in time to meet a state loan deadline, he said.

“We need to move quickly, and annexation is the key to moving quickly,” he said.

Blair later told the Signpost that the Fisher ponds, when combined with a second project planned between I-25 and South Hill Road, will provide one-hundred-year storm protection for the downstream neighborhood hit by three major floods in recent years.

“It’s the best opportunity to do something for town residents,” said Kelley Fetter, a Placitas resident who owns property on South Hill Road.

Fisher will be operating under a conditional-use permit with a zoning designation for manufacturing. As part of the permit, Fisher agreed to abide by environmental laws, operate only from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, reclaim the land according to an approved plan, and limit the amount of town water it uses.

The Town also won’t pay to extend water or sewer lines to the property, and Fisher said it wouldn’t install an asphalt plant on the property. An asphalt plant became a major point of contention several years ago when Fisher moved one onto the site before withdrawing a county application to being operating it.

Olson said mining could begin in August, with the site employing about six people. He estimated the property contains five hundred thousand tons of material that would sell for eight dollars a ton at current prices.

Three districts electing school board members

—Signpost Staff

Voters in Bernalillo, Rio Rancho, and Cuba can go to the polls on February 3 to vote on members of their boards of education.

The only contested race in the Bernalillo Public Schools pits current board chair Ramona Salazar against Orlando Lucero, who recently stepped down after two terms on the Sandoval County Commission. Both Vincent Montoya of Bernalillo and Darlene Herrera of Cochiti Pueblo are running unopposed for re-election.

In the Cuba Independent Schools district, incumbent board member Dianna Maestas-Lovato is being challenged by Maria Carmen Gallegos. In District 5, Carl Stern of La Jara is competing with Marcellino Crespín for an open seat, while current board secretary Vivian Keetso of Counselor faces no opposition.

In Rio Rancho, Ramon Montaño and Ryan Parra are running unopposed for two open seats.

Polls are open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Current and former Sandoval County commissioners occupy the front row during swearing-in ceremonies for newly elected officials. From right: Darryl Madalena, Glenn Walters, former Commissioner Orlando Lucero, new Commissioner James Dominguez, and re-elected Commissioner Don Chapman. Commissioner Nora Scherzinger was not present.

With his daughter Jenae Dominguez Avila, brother Gabriel Dominguez at his shoulder and mother Lola in the audience, newly elected County Commissioner James Dominguez takes his oath of office administered by Bernalillo Municipal Judge Sharon Torres..

Commission alters leadership and open-meetings policy

—Signpost Staff

The New Year brought one new face to the Sandoval County Commission, as James Dominguez quickly found himself with added responsibilities.

In a party-line vote, Dominguez of Bernalillo was elected vice chairman of the commission. Darryl Madalena of Jemez Pueblo returned as chairman.

Commissioner Don Chapman had nominated fellow Republican and Rio Rancho resident Glenn Walters for the vice-chair position but fell short in the two-yes, three-no vote. Democrat Nora Scherzinger of Rio Rancho, participating in the meeting by phone, sided with Madalena and Dominguez in the voting.

Dominguez, whose district includes most communities east of the Rio Grande, succeeded Commissioner Orlando Lucero of Bernalillo who had reached his limit of two consecutive, four-year terms.

In other action, during the meeting commissioners recognized the Rio Rancho High School Rams football team for its 13-0 season and for winning the school’s first state football championship. The team and coaches, who turned out in force for the meeting, broke a tie score in the closing minutes of the December 5 game to defeat perennial powerhouse Las Cruces Mayfield 33 to 31.

A proclamation declared January 9 as Rio Rancho Rams Day in the county.

Danielle Duran of PNM appeared before the commission to explain and defend a pending rate hike that could boost residential rates by an average ten dollars a month, beginning in January. The state Public Service Commission is considering the request that also includes charging a monthly fee for new residential solar- and wind-power installations to help maintain the PNM system.

“There will be some unhappiness with this,” Duran acknowledged. While commercial customers won’t see as big an increase, they continue to subsidize residential rates, she added.

Part of the rate request relates to new pollution controls required at the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. A coalition of clean-energy advocates has argued PNM is inflating the cost of pollution controls by trying to add unnecessary equipment at the station.

Critics also characterize the solar fee as a fine or tax that would set back the solar industry in the state.

Commissioners also wrestled with the annual task of approving an open-meetings policy for the year. While opening meetings was not the issue, commissioners removed language limiting public comment to the end of the meeting and allowing it elsewhere at the commission’s discretion.

At the insistence of Commissioner Chapman, the section on setting meeting agendas was clarified to stress the idea that one commissioner could place an item to a future agenda if a majority of the commission agrees. In general, the county manager and commission chair assemble the agenda, although there was a provision for a majority of commissioners to add an item.

Judge tosses Gary Miles assault case

—Bill Diven

The criminal charges against animal activist Gary Miles, filed after a reported scuffle over free-roaming horses, have been dismissed.

Miles, facing two misdemeanor counts, was in Magistrate Court ready for trial on January 16. Instead, Judge Richard Zanotti dismissed the charges after finding the trial deadline was about to expire without the District Attorney’s Office having turned over all relevant documents to Miles’s attorney.

Zanotti did, however, give prosecutors the option of refiling the charges.

The case arose from a July 3 incident in the Placitas Ranchettes subdivision. Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies reported a confrontation arose between Miles and resident Robert Woodall, whom he accused of corralling three free-roaming horses for confiscation by the state Livestock Board. While Miles and Woodall agreed words were exchange, they disputed whether Miles was on the Woodall’s property.

Both accused the other of assault, and each was charged with aggravated battery. Miles faced the additional charge of criminal trespass for allegedly entering Woodall’s property and tearing down a portable corral to free the three horses.

Woodall’s wife backed his version of events, and Zanotti dismissed his charge in August without a trial being scheduled.

The ongoing controversy over horses wandering Placitas led to dozens being rounded up and turned over to the state as stray livestock available for auction if not claimed by an owner. Miles has bought most of the seized horses and, through donations and a network of volunteers, cares for them in Placitas and elsewhere. He also offers them for adoption.

In a separate case pending in District Court, Miles is accused of bribery of a witness in a horse adoption that devolved into a harassment complaint against Miles’ adoption coordinator. Miles has denied the accusation saying he only told the person wanting the horse the adoption couldn’t proceed since a court order forbade the coordinator from having contact with the alleged victim.

That felony case is tentatively set for trial in mid March

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