The Valles Caldera Preserve: Will Hunting There Become as Extinct as the Volcano?

By Dr. Jim and Mary Clary

Valles Caldera from Road 09
Picture from V.C. Road 09.

Valles Caldera is a 13.7 mile wide volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico. Ownership of the Valles Caldera has passed through several hands over the past 140 years, from the Baca ranch in 1876 to the Dunigan family in 1963. During this period of private ownership, the land was heavily logged and overgrazed by sheep. No one can dispute that these activities caused some serious damage to the Caldera.

In 2000, the Valles Caldera Preservation Act (V.C.P.A.) was signed and the Valles Caldera National Preserve was established. Management of the Preserve was handled by the Valles Caldera Trust, a non-profit organization.

A provision of the V.C.P.A. required that elk hunting was to be allowed, for management of the Valles Caldera elk herd. It is important to point out that, at the time, sportsmen were worried about how management of the elk herd would be handled by the Trust and whether hunting would be eliminated as time passed.

The Trust established a lottery system of draws for the coveted elk tags with the advice and cooperation of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF). The elk tags on the Caldera were considered premium tags by sportsmen, with many high point bulls being taken there and a high degree of success.

Although not perfect, the Trust system worked fairly well. However, as operational costs rose and with income failing to keep up, the Trust was required to seek assistance in managing the Caldera.

Caldera management was offered to the NMDGF, but due to budget constraints, they had to decline. State money was simply not there for proper and adequate management of the Caldera.

Ultimately, "ownership" of the Caldera was passed to the National Parks Service (N.P.S.) on October 15, 2015. This was a major mistake. The N.P.S. is not interested in hunting; their mandate is more about habitat management for use by the general public. Hunting is a nuisance that is essentially contrary to their disposition and primary mission. However, the N.P.S. was stuck with the hunting requirement established by the V.C.P.A. of 2000.

Never let it be said that bureaucrats cannot dance around a law when they wish and that is what the N.P.S. did when they took over management of the Caldera. In the name of habitat management/preservation they shut down all of the remote access roads in the Caldera, leaving open only the two tourist roads (09 and 02), which pass through expansive meadows with no elk habitat. The N.P.S. effectively violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by denying hunters who are disabled and the elderly with a reasonable opportunity to harvest an elk. Oh, the N.P.S. personnel will state, "we gave them access to the Preserve, so we did not violate the A.D.A." Right!

How do we know that the N.P.S. did this? Very simple: Mary is disabled and severely mobility impaired due to multiple medical conditions. When she drew an elk tag for the Caldera in 2016, she had high hopes that she might be able to finally have an opportunity to harvest an elk within a reasonable distance of our vehicle.

Long story short, over four days of hunting (and I am a pretty good hunter with 60 years experience), we never saw an elk. Why would we? They were all in the back country, not in the open meadows where the tourist cars pass through every day (roads 09 and 02). Those were the only roads we were allowed to use.

The N.P.S. has essentially ignored the Hunt Accessibility Project (H.A.P.) by Mr. William Meyer, MOTS, dated 5/18/2015, which would enable the Caldera to be compliant with the A.D.A. Ignoring the H.A.P and closing the remote access roads pretty much guarantees that if you are not a very robust individual who can hike in several miles through rough country, you will not have a chance to see, let alone harvest, an elk.

Not only is the N.P.S. policy bad for hunters, it is also bad news for the elk herd. At the present time, it is estimated that there are four bulls for every 10 cows on the Caldera. That ratio is bad for the overall health of the herd. It places too much stress on the cows, causing many of them to abort or reabsorb their fetuses. A ratio of one bull to 10 cows is more reasonable for proper management, but that is another story.

The bottom line is that sportsmen who were worried in 2000 that hunting would be severely curtailed or ultimately eliminated in the Caldera were probably correct. It is our opinion that one way or another, either by unreasonable restrictions, or a surreptitious amendment to the V.C.P.A., the National Park Service will endeavor to make hunting on the Preserve as extinct as the Valles Caldera volcano.

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Copyright 2016 by Dr. Jim Clary. All rights reserved.