Something Fishy at State Game Department

Few explanations offered for why Director James Lane made a quick exit

At nine o’clock Wednesday morning, Oct. 30, the state’s Game Commission convened an emergency closed meeting in Albuquerque. If the meeting was unexpected, the announcement afterwards was a shock—one that still has sportsmen, state employees and conservationists wondering what happened at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

The seven-member Game Commission sets policy for the department, and according to its agenda, members would be discussing personnel matters, the consideration of complaints against several public employees and pending litigation. In place of the department's director, James S Lane, deputy director Dan Brooks called roll.

After two hours behind closed doors, members of the commission emerged and then voted unanimously to accept Lane's resignation.

At just after one o'clock, RJ Kirkpatrick, assistant director, forwarded a farewell message from Lane to department staff. Bidding employees goodbye and bestowing his pride upon them, Lane wrote, "While sometimes abrupt, career change is inevitable at times. It is the right time for me and my family to move on." A few hours later, a press release announced that Kirkpatrick— not Brooks, the second-in-command—would step in as interim director. Lane's name didn't even appear in the release.

(Requests to interview Kirkpatrick for this story were denied; in a final attempt to include his perspective, SFR emailed questions, which remain unanswered.)

"It was completely out of the blue," says Michelle Briscoe, interim executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit representing the state's sportsmen. The department's spokesperson says Lane was leaving to "focus on his family." At the commission's regular meeting in November, members wouldn't divulge what they'd discussed during that closed meeting. Even long-time state employees still have no idea why Lane was suddenly gone.

Public discourse and official documents show that Lane led the department with disdain for conservation and little tolerance for those who disagreed with his pro-trapping and prohunting stance. He also took a pricey trip to the nation's capital this fall, and earlier this year led the Game Commission afoul of the state's law on open meetings. But none of those things come close to explaining Lane's sudden—and eerily quiet—departure from state government in New Mexico. In recent weeks, two other high-ranked employees have left the department as well: Human Resources Chief Sonya Quintana and Assistant Director Patrick Block. Lane's tenure Hailing from Kentucky, Lane worked for that state's Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, first as a biologist and then as director of the division of wildlife. He left that top position in 2007 to work in another division, information officer Mark Marraccini tells SFR. Marraccini wouldn't characterize the shift as a demotion, though he acknowledges the new job wasn't "at the same level." Then, in May 2009, Lane left Kentucky—and his $57,986 a year job—for New Mexico.

Arriving at Game and Fish in his late-30s, Lane worked for two years as chief of the Wildlife Management Division. Then, in Oct. 2011, the Game Commission named him to the department's top job. All but one commissioner—Chairman Jim McClintic, who passed away in February—voted for Lane.

Just as Lane's resignation was quick and quiet—so was his hiring. The job announcement went out on Aug. 31, 2011. A handful of applicants were vetted; four of the five were from within the department. (The one out-of-state candidate considered was eliminated due to a lack of qualifications and responsiveness.) According to an internal timeline of the search process, interviews would take place during the commission's Oct. 13 meeting and the new director would be announced in early November.

But after emerging from the closed session of interviews at about 4 pm, the commission voted in favor of Lane. By the end of the day, the press release—complete with family photo and bio—was out the door. Beating out th ree agency veterans, the young director, just two years out of Kentucky, would be overseeing 300 employees and an annual budget in excess of $30 million.

Lane immediately set about making changes within the department. He consolidated control in Santa Fe and away from local offices. He did little to conceal his distaste for nongame species, whether in conversations with employees or in public meetings. Some of New Mexico's resident hunters complained he didn't adequately consider their interests. (Non-resident hunting licenses cost more than those purchased by New Mexico residents.

Some local hunters worry opportunities are handed to those who pay more, rather than to those who live in the state.)

Hunting and fishing issues naturally dominate department business, says former Game Commissioner Dutch Salmon. But under the state's Wildlife Conservation Act of 1978, it also protects and studies threatened and endangered species. "[The conservation division] tends to look after nongame animals, endangered species, habitats," Salmon says. "There's probably a certain amount of friction, but they just have a different agenda." He points to his backyard, the Gila National Forest: The department's biologists focus on native fish like Gila trout, Sonoran suckers and browntail chub, while the fisheries' staff improves conditions for the nonnative fish species sportsmen prefer, like brown trout, catfish, and bass. "It's logical you want to take care of your native fish," says Salmon. "On the other hand, the sportsfish in the Gila River are mostly nonnative fish that tend to prey on native fish."

That squishy middle ground applies to more than just fish. The department and the commission need to balance the public’s needs across the state, conflicts between resident and non-resident hunters over the cost and availability of licenses, and the whims of changing political administrations. “They’ll always be a yin and yang in the game and fish management business,” says Salmon, who served during the Richardson administration, “and finding a working middle ground is a tricky business.”

Over the past two years, Lane whittled away the conservation division. Biologists were transferred; some resigned and weren't replaced. Lane appeared to lack the finesse—or tolerance—to work with those who disagreed with his pro-hunting, pro-trapping and anti-wolf beliefs. On his Facebook page, he complained about "tree-huggin' hippies" and biased reporters, and posted pictures of dead coyotes. Employees and activists alike say Lane made them feel uncomfortable.

Over the past two years, WildEarth Guardians received multiple calls from distraught employees, says executive director John Horning. "Anyone who showed compassion toward wildlife or had an interest in scientific integrity was marginalized within that department," says Horning. The nonprofit had filed a lawsuit against the department for a policy which allows trapping within the recovery area of the rare Mexican gray wolf. "We have disputes (with agencies) all the time—we just have different worldviews—but he was really mean-spirited about those things." Trips and emergencies This spring, Lane also led the Game Commission astray on transparency. Near the end of the commission's May 2013 meeting, Lane raised the issue of Senate Bill 285, a bill to transfer ownership of the Valles Caldera National Preserve to the National Park Service. In 2000, the federal government paid $100 million for an 89,000- acre private ranch in the Jemez Mountains then set it aside as a preserve. Management has been problematic, however. Recently, Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich proposed the transfer as a way to better fund the preserve, while still keeping it open to hunting and fishing.

At its meeting, the commission drafted a resolution opposing the bill and prepared to vote on it—a move that violated the state's Open Meetings Act. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation protested, disagreeing with Lane's assertion that it fit the definition of an emergency. The Attorney General's Office declined to prosecute commissioners for the violation; instead, commissioners took training on the Open Meetings Act and also revised their public notice policy.

Game and Fish doesn't just oppose the transfer; it has also floated a draft proposal to take it over from the federal government, via the Game Commission.

According to a department presentation, 25 national hunting organizations oppose SB 285. These include the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, Boone & Crockett Club, and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Tom Jervis, president of the nonprofit Caldera Action, scoffs that the state could take over the preserve: "The federal government spent $100 million buying this, do you think they will turn around and say, 'We'll just give it to you?'" It's just not a realistic proposal, he says.

But Lane and Game Commission Chair Scott Bidegain were serious enough to travel to Washington DC in October. According to an email from Lane to David Jablonski— who works in the governor's office and approved the trip—the two planned to discuss the preserve with New Mexico's senators. Lane added in his email to Jablonski: "If I can kill more birds (talking lesser prairie chicken) while I'm there, I may stay an extra day."

Thanks to drilling and agricultural impacts, that bird is becoming increasingly rare. Five states, the feds and the energy industry have been trying to come up with a plan to protect the bird while keeping it off the federal Endangered Species Act list. Protection under the act would trigger restrictions some say would harm the industry and ranchers.

In early October, Lane and Bidegain travelled to Washington DC—enjoying dinner and latenight beers at the Dubliner, a bar and restaurant near the $286 a night Phoenix Park Hotel; lunch with Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies; and a brief meeting with Sens. Udall and Heinrich, to which Lane invited the government affairs director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Lane didn't stay an extra day, but he and Bidegain did arrange to meet with Rep. Steve Pearce's office to discuss Mexican gray wolves, the lesser prairie chicken, and a recommendation letter for a Rio Rancho high school student to the Naval Academy.

The state's compliance with an Inspection of Public Records Act request didn't reveal who else the two met with, but taxi fare receipts show $30 trips from the Dirksen Senate Building to K Street and also from the hotel to The Monacle Restaurant, a Capitol Hill steakhouse. The tab for that meal appears to have been picked up by someone else; neither Lane nor Bidegain submitted that receipt to the state for reimbursement.

Calls to Bidegain weren't returned, and interim director Kirkpatrick didn't respond when asked why the two spent more than $2,500 in state money to travel to DC to meet with two senators who travel frequently in New Mexico.

Steps forward

According to Game Commissioner William Montoya, the decision to resign was Lane's own. "That was his choice, and we accepted his resignation," Montoya says, "and we're in the process of looking for another director."

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is urging the commission to undertake a robust, national search. Briscoe says Lane fell short of the organization's expectations for transparency, public input and elevating the priorities of resident sportsmen. She believes now is a good opportunity for the Martinez admiration to "improve transparency and public input."

Public input is especially important to Game and Fish, which is unique among state agencies. Its budget comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and a federal tax on the sale of sports gear. And while the governor appoints its members, the Game Commission is supposed to consider public input when setting policy.

A new director, says Briscoe, can help the commission be more transparent and inclusive. "Whoever they hire, we would look forward to someone who prioritizes adaptive, sciencebased management of resources, who values science and values public input," says Briscoe. "And we hope they will conduct an open and transparent search with the finalists made public."

As for Lane, he couldn't be reached for comment—though a source close to him says he did not have a job lined up when the Game Commission accepted his resignation at the end of October. As director, he was earning $100,999.

But perhaps he can return to Kentucky: The Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is currently seeking candidates for the top position. In September, its department head, Jonathan Gassett—who joined the department in 1999, the same year as Lane—resigned from the agency during a flurry of state investigations and audits over exorbitant travel expenses, personnel practices, and spending issues.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.