LAS CRUCES >> The ongoing debate over Mexican wolves flared up late last week, and now a Las Cruces conservation group alleges a Lordsburg-area official silenced the free speech rights of one of its employees.

But Hidalgo County Commissioner Darr Shannon said she was protecting her constituency and the sanctity of the fledgling farmers market there when she sent home a representative from the Southwest Environmental Center, also known as SWEC, a Las Cruces-based nonprofit that works to protect and restore wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Last Friday at the Hidalgo Farmers Market and Mercado, about 120 miles west of Las Cruces, SWEC field organizer Patricia Snyder set up an information table and petition in support of the Mexican wolf, an endangered species that has been reintroduced in the desert southwest since 1998 thanks to a controversial U.S. Fish and Wildlife program.

Many of the Hidalgo Farmers Market and Mercado vendors are ranchers in the county and vehemently opposed to having more Mexican wolves in the area because of the threat to their cattle and sheep, officials said.

Sensing that a conflict was brewing, John Allen called Shannon. Allen helped organize the market through his work with the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Office.
Then Shannon kicked out Snyder. "This was not the venue for her endeavor," said Shannon in a phone interview with the Sun-News on Monday. "That should not be brought into such a wholesome thing ... I'm here to protect what the people of our county believe in."

Kevin Bixby, executive director of SWEC, said Shannon's actions violated free speech rights. "We're not idiots," Bixby said in a prepared statement. "We know wolves are not popular in every county, but you have to wonder why the elected officials of Hidalgo County are so afraid of a point of view they don't agree with, never mind why they don't respect the First Amendment of the Constitution. And you also have to wonder why they are so eager to protect their constituents from a diversity of views."

Shannon, who has served as a county commissioner for four years, comes from a family with a long history of ranching in the Lordsburg area. She admitted that SWEC's position "is absolutely against my grain," but said her actions weren't personal to Snyder and not intended to silence supporters of the Mexican wolf.

When read Bixby's statement, Shannon countered: "If they want to think their free speech was squashed, our free speech was squashed by them being there." Allen said it's not about the market taking one side or the other. Organizers simply don't want any "hot button" political issues swirling around the local produce. "We're trying to bring the community together instead of dividing the community," he said. "We're trying to keep it neutral. ... The only thing people (at the market) should be supporting is local food, healthy eating and youth development." He said allowing SWEC would open the doors to the "anti-wolf people," and they would bring graphic photos depicting livestock killed — not what you want to see when buying fruits and vegetables, he said.

Christine Ortiz, a co-manager of the farmers market, said officials hadn't thought of establishing a rule limiting political speech at the market because they "hadn't thought that far ahead." The market, which has about seven regular vendors, is held in an empty lot owned by a bank.

Ortiz expressed some empathy for Snyder — "The poor girl went away in tears, I think she felt bullied" — but also said she didn't realize SWEC's table would be politically charged. If she had known that, Ortiz said, she may have suggested that SWEC not bring a petition, but only information.
Ortiz, who comes from a family of hay farmers, said she is neutral on the wolf issue. She apologized Monday to Snyder in Las Cruces.

Allen said farmers market officials are in the process of establishing rules and protocol for such situations. SWEC, meanwhile, will look at its legal options. Bixby said he wants to get SWEC's message to the people of Hidalgo County. In the past, SWEC has attended farmers markets all over the community, Bixby said. No other market has kicked SWEC representatives out. "We believe the people of Hidalgo County have the right to make up their minds, just as much as anyone, despite what Commissioner Shannon thinks about their ability to think for themselves," Bixby said.

This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are holding public meetings in New Mexico and Arizona to discuss changes to its management plan of the Mexican wolf. Among the changes:

Officials would reintroduce the Mexican wolves into New Mexico's Gila National Forest; and the private and government officials would have more justification to trap and kill the wolves.

The New Mexico public hearing is set for 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Civic Center in Truth or Consequences. It's located at 400 W. Fourth Street.