Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) two predator management plans have been ensnared in contention and doubt regarding their scientific legitimacy and underlying purpose since being unanimously approved by CPW Commissioners in December 2016 (see Boulder Weekly’s “Off target,” Feb. 9, and “Update,” Feb. 23).
The plans call for the killing of hundreds of Colorado’s iconic mountain lions and black bears in what is alleged to be a spurious attempt to more rapidly increase mule deer populations in areas where they’re already steadily increasing. Critics assert that cumulative impacts from oil and gas extraction are far more likely the reason for the mule deer’s struggles than predation. As a result of these disparate opinions, a lawsuit challenging the plans, filed against the CPW Commission, CPW, and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) by WildEarth Guardians, is pending in Denver County District Court. And now, new evidence has appeared that lends credence to the critics position that the mountain lions and bears are getting a death sentence for the crimes of the oil and gas industry.
It was this controversy that led Colorado Rep. Steve Lebsock (D-Northglenn) to arrange a legislative caucus at the state capitol on Feb. 16. As previously reported by Boulder Weekly, the panel included CPW researchers Mat Alldredge and Chuck Anderson; CPW assistant director for Research, Policy and Planning, Jeff Ver Steeg; Colorado State University (CSU) Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology professors Joel Berger, Kevin Crooks and Barry Noon; and members of the Colorado General Assembly. Also present were DNR executive director Bob Randall and CPW director Bob Broscheid.
The caucus focused largely on the best available science regarding mule deer populations. CSU scientists argued that habitat factors, like oil and gas development, are likely the largest factors limiting mule deer populations, as opposed to CPW who argued that predation from mountain lions and bears has more of an impact. Because of the well-attended caucus, Lebsock asked that Randall request the CPW Commission delay implementation of the predator management plans for a year until it could be determined whether or not they’re based in sound science. Neither Lebsock nor Randall replied to BW’s request for comment.
Following the caucus, Broscheid was questioned about the impact oil and gas development has on mule deer populations in northwestern Colorado, known as the Piceance Basin, where one of the predator management plans is set to take place this spring and summer.
“I think it’s an over-simplistic view of what’s going on,” Broscheid replied, saying that he thinks oil and gas is not a limiting factor on mule deer populations. Additionally the statewide, “loss of habitat is absolutely key, but in the case of the study and this area — for this part of the state only — it’s not oil and gas.” Seemingly contradicting his claim are CPW’s own progress reports for the area that show fewer deer in areas of high oil and gas development.
Broscheid’s claims about the oil and gas industry’s lack of impact on mule deer habitat is at best curious when considered in light of documents associated with a 2006 land and water rights exchange between CPW, the Division of Wildlife (CDOW), and Shell Frontier Oil and Gas, Inc. The lands involved in this exchange sit squarely within the area of the Piceance Basin impacted by the current predator plans.
According to the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) dated May 18, 2007, which was issued in accordance to granting the exchange, CDOW proposed to exchange lands with Shell to resolve management and inholding issues at Piceance State Wildlife Area (SWA). As such, CPW deeded some 3,108 acres of land, associated water rights and 17 severed water rights to Shell. In exchange, Shell deeded 1,781 acres of land to CPW, filling gaps in the Oak Ridge SWA. The Piceance parcels and water rights were valued at $3,009,000, and the Shell parcels at $2,880,000. Shell paid CPW the $129,000 difference in cash, a difference representing the 1,308 acre overage and water rights. That is, Shell paid CPW $99 an acre, including the value of acquired water rights.
Because the CPW lands were originally purchased using federal funds from the Pittman-Robertson (PR) Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1996 (NEPA), an environmental assessment (EA) was required before the exchange could be made. According to the EA, the Division of Wildlife originally purchased the land in the 1950s to acquire big game habitat, primarily deer winter range, as well as to ensure hunter access. Oil and gas extraction was not a motive.
The EA notes the parcels CPW was exchanging with Shell were impacted by drought and increased mineral development activities in the surrounding areas. And as a result, citing their own unpublished data, CPW calimed the areas “now exhibit reduced wildlife habitat values and resultant smaller big game populations.”
Simply put, according to CPW, drought and oil and gas development were decreasing mule deer populations in the Piceance Basin. The EA further states that increased oil and gas extraction activities are believed to have been responsible for the movement of deer and elk out of the Piceance Basin. The EA was released to the public on March 1, 2007 for a 30-day public comment period that expired on April Fools’ day. Not a single public comment was received.
Back in 2006-07 when no one was apparently paying attention, CPW cited the fact that oil and gas extraction lowers big game populations, including mule deer, as evidence to help push through the land exchange with Shell Oil. But when it comes to the predator management plans covering the same area only a few years later, it is reversing its position, claiming that oil and gas has no impact on deer populations, choosing instead to blame predation by mountain lions and bears, which it now plans to destroy despite the outcry from scientists who say such a slaughter will not solve the mule deer’s problems. The end result is that the oil and gas industry’s role in declining wildlife populations and habitat is shielded from the public. But why and at what cost?
According to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and CPW documents, the CPW lands exchanged were noted as providing big game winter and severe winter range, mule deer summer range, elk summer range and production area, and sage grouse overall range. This is not to mention the hundreds of other wildlife species in the surveyed area.
The EA reads like an elegy to a lifeway lost — an identity destroyed by the extraction of oil and gas — stating that, “Historically this area supported the largest deer herd in the country.” A phrase later repeated as, “the largest deer herd in the nation,” indicating the deer herd in the Piceance was a part of an American identity destroyed and supplanted by the oil and gas industry. And this happened not only to deer, but also to the hunters for whom the deer were quarry, as the EA states, “This part of Colorado was a favorite area to hunt deer and elk.”
The EA further states that the oil shale development and associated extraction experiments that have occurred since the original purchase of the Piceance Parcels in the 1950s have resulted in the development of an extensive road network on both private and public lands, which “has likely been responsible for reducing deer populations in the area.” Concurrently, the EA states, along with changes in land use, which have been attributed to increased oil and gas development in the area over the past 20-30 years, deer habitat preferences have shifted to favor other locations outside of the Piceance Basin. “Therefore,” the EA concludes, “both original purposes for purchasing the Piceance parcels — to protect big game winter range and to provide hunter access — have diminished over time.”
The EA then notes that development of natural gas resources in the Piceance has generally increased since the late 1980s, is expected to continue, and that past boom-and-bust cycles of oil and gas extraction in the area have most likely resulted in diminished big game populations and overall wildlife values. Furthermore, the EA states, “The recent completion of major new pipelines and the repair and/or enlargement of existing pipelines and transport facilities will also continue to stimulate gas production in the area,” stating that the Piceance is “renowned” for its shale deposits, estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at 1.2 trillion barrels of shale oil. The USGS recently estimated the Piceance holds 66 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
As a result, the EA states the CPW (“Division”), “believes it will not be able to effectively protect wildlife or public values on a short-term or long-term basis on the Piceance Parcels due to imminent oil shale and energy development activities adjacent in the area, as well as the fact that the Division does not control the subsurface mineral rights for these parcels.”
This recently unearthed information from the land swap EA raises serious questions about Broscheid’s previously mentioned comment, wherein he states oil and gas extraction doesn’t impact mule deer populations in the Piceance Basin area.
Not only do the two positions contradict each other, they both seem to expose what could be described as the general positive stance CPW has toward oil and gas activity in Colorado, a fact well illustrated by the CPW Commission’s policy on energy development in Colorado.
Effective Sept. 13, 2007, this policy cites the commission’s intent to uphold their legislative direction, which is “that wildlife and their environment are to be protected, preserved, enhanced and managed for the use, benefit and enjoyment of the people of this state and its visitors.” However, the commission “recognizes the important role energy companies play in providing clean, safe and efficient energy for America’s homes and businesses as well as the substantial economic contribution resulting from jobs, taxes, mineral royalties, etc.”
This statement, which reads like an industry advertisement, is set in opposition to wildlife and the environment. And because mineral rights supersede surface rights in Colorado, the policy creates a conflict-of-interest for CPW, wherein their prerogative is no longer the protection of wildlife and its habitat, but “balancing” healthy wildlife and its habitat with oil and gas extraction. A dual purpose — the EA demonstrates quite clearly — is virtually impossible to accomplish.
Also in its energy policy, the commission recognizes that energy development “has occurred and will continue in habitats where important wildlife species exist in Colorado,” resulting in greater impacts to wildlife and their habitat. As a result, CPW is concerned these impacts could affect “some of our most important big game herds, and ultimately the quality of hunting, the ability of the Division of Wildlife to effectively manage these herds, local economies, and the revenue that the Division depends on from hunting licenses.” As such, the commission concludes they must encourage an approach to oil and gas extraction that balances “development with wildlife conservation and the hunting, fishing, and recreation traditions and economies they support.”
What CPW fails to address is what is to be done when oil and gas extraction and wildlife and its habitats are in direct conflict with each other’s existence. Because the policy requires CPW attempt to balance the health of wildlife and its habitat with oil and gas extraction, and not choose between them, it only makes sense that different culprits for declining wildlife such as mule deer must be identified in order for the blame for such decline to be shifted away from oil and gas extraction activity which CPW is legally bound to support to the extent possible.
In the case of the predator management plans, the blame has been shifted to mountain lions and bears. In this sense, the policy also appears to prevent CPW from ever seeking damages to wildlife and their habitat from oil and gas extraction despite the findings of the aforementioned EA. As a result, the oil and gas industry is effectively shielded and enriched at the expense of the wildlife of the Piceance Basin, the lands they depend on for life, and the Coloradans who enjoy them.
As mentioned earlier, CPW purchased the land and water rights exchanged with Shell Oil with funds from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act. According to the act, the funds were to be used “for the development, revision, and implementation of wildlife conservation and restoration programs and should be used to address the unmet needs for a diverse array of wildlife and associated habitats, including species that are not hunted or fished, for wildlife conservation, wildlife conservation education, and wildlife-associated recreation projects. Such funds may be used for new programs and projects as well as to enhance existing programs and projects.”
The funds clearly aren’t meant for the development of oil and gas resources or the defense of the oil and gas industry’s reputation.
Furthermore, it appears that the exchange between CPW and Shell constituted a precedent because only a few years later, after being merged with Colorado’s DNR, CPW engaged in a similar land exchange, disposing of even more of the Piceance State Wildlife Area, but this time with ExxonMobil, represented by XTO Energy. In a letter attached to the property transaction proposal for the exchange, on May 8, 2012, the Rio Blanco County Board of Commissioners sent a letter to Bill de Vergie, CPW area wildlife manager, supporting the exchange. The commissioners called the plan a “win-win situation” because the land would open up some public lands for hunting and would also open areas for “intense energy development, which if developed would add to the assessed value of the county.” However, the commissioners did not address the health of the wildlife or their habitat on the lands being disposed of by CPW.
According to the property transaction proposal, CPW would exchange 900 acres of land and water rights within Piceance SWA valued at $2,025,000 for 1,991 acres of land and water rights in other nearby areas valued at $2,808,000. ExxonMobil owns the mineral rights beneath the SWA, and had plans to develop them. Apparently, there was no cost to CPW for the difference in estimated value. And there’s a likely good explanation for this seeming generosity on ExxonMobil’s part.
ExxonMobil reserved the mineral rights under the lands it was exchanging with CPW, leaving them vulnerable to future development which would, should it occur, defeat any value that might have ever existed for CPW making the land swap in the first place — at least any value for wildlife. Finally, because CPW originally purchased the lands with federal funds, similar to the aforementioned exchange between CPW and Shell Oil, an EA was required under NEPA.
The EA reads similarly to the one covering CPW’s exchange with Shell, often repeating phrases verbatim, even though they were written half a dozen years apart. “Over the past several decades,” it reads, “the Piceance SWA has not only been impacted by drought, but also by increased mineral development activities in surrounding areas. The SWA now exhibits reduced wildlife habitat values and has resulted in reduced big game populations.” That is, oil and gas extraction is again noted as being responsible for decreasing mule deer populations in the Piceance, an area just north of the one being proposed as grounds for the predator management plan, where CPW contends oil and gas extraction has no impact on mule deer populations, instead blaming mountain lions and bears.
The ExxonMobil EA goes on to state that CPW is considering the proposed exchange because the habitat value of the Piceance Parcel has been compromised, “primarily by pressures resulting from nearby oil and gas development,” stating that the situation is unlikely to improve. Furthermore, the EA states the use of the Piceance Basin by deer has changed, which is attributed to several causes including lower deer population numbers, shifting of deer habitat preferences to favor other locations outside of the Piceance Basin, and by changes in human use primarily related to energy development.
The EA then repeats a tragic story that cumulative impacts from oil and gas extraction have resulted in an extensive road network, “which has most likely been responsible for reducing deer populations in the area,” marking the steep decline of “what was once an important deer use area both in Colorado and in our country.”
Again, CPW’s insistence that oil and gas extraction doesn’t limit mule deer populations, in the context of their predator management plans, directly contradicts the findings of the EAs they contributed to in the exact same area. The fact such an exchange repeated is a sign it is a pattern where oil and gas development is prioritized over wildlife and their habitats.
On Feb. 14, 2017 two days before the aforementioned legislative caucus discussing the predator plans, George Wittemyer, CSU professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology gave an interview on Aspen Public Radio. Wittemyer has been studying oil and gas extraction’s effects on mule deer in the Piceance Basin for the past five years, and was asked his opinion about the impacts. He noted behavioral avoidance of the drilling phase was having an impact, but that the precise impact on populations is less clear. Wittemyer also noted that his study, which is being done in collaboration with CPW, is occurring as human impacts from oil and gas drilling are decreasing, and as mule deer populations are increasing.
When asked about CPW’s predator management plans during the radio interview, Wittemyer replied that habitat treatment, which CPW has engaged in, “would be probably the most logical approach in terms of increasing mule deer populations.” The predator removal plan, Wittemyer notes, “is really a secondary approach,” adding that he thinks it’s widely acknowledged that much of what’s gone on with mule deer is habitat related.
Following the Feb. 16 caucus, what occurred within the ranks of CPW and in their collaborative relationships with CSU reveals the nature of what it currently means to point a finger of guilt at oil and gas extraction when dealing with CPW, even when doing so is based in the best available science.
In emails, obtained as part of an open records request, on the morning of the 2017 caucus, CPW’s assistant director for Research, Policy and Planning Ver Steeg forwarded news of Wittemyer’s radio interview to CPW researchers Alldredge and Anderson. As a result of the radio interview and the testimony at the legislative caucus discussion, Anderson wrote in an email to his CSU colleague and collaborator Wittemyer on Feb. 20 that, “our director was furious. Hope this doesn’t compromise our ability to collaborate in the future.”
Citing Wittemyer’s aforementioned interview in a Feb. 22, 2017 email to Douglas Vilsack, legislative liaison for DNR, Ver Steeg asserts that Wittemyer “acknowledges that while deer behavior certainly changed [because of oil and gas activity], we have been unable to detect that this behavioral change negatively impacted the deer population. So we have independent corroboration from a different CSU faculty person.”
Here, Ver Steeg cites Wittemyer to “corroborate” CPW’s claim that oil and gas extraction doesn’t impact mule deer populations, when Wittemyer actually notes that it is rather a question as to the degree to which oil and gas extraction impacts mule deer populations. Wittemyer also states that over the course of his study, as oil and gas activity has been decreasing, mule deer populations have been increasing.
Furthermore, Ver Steeg neglects to address Wittemyer’s criticism of the predator management plans, giving at least the appearance of being more concerned with public perception of oil and gas extraction’s impact on mule deer populations than with mule deer populations themselves.
Secondly, Ver Steeg’s position, which seems to contradict the findings of the aforementioned EAs, appears to reveal that CPW’s interests are ultimately the oil and gas industry’s interests. Furthermore, it appears that Ver Steeg would like to blame predation from mountain lions and bears for some negative impact on mule deer populations, and is searching for ways to minimize the lack of any data to support that, and instead denies and deflects any questioning of the cumulative impact oil and gas extraction has on mule deer populations.
Following the caucus panel discussion, Noon, who has been a prominent opponent to the predator plans since their passage, was asked by BW to comment on the role of a research scientist and professor in a land-grant university like CSU.
“Just about all of our work is funded by public dollars,” Noon says, “and it’s my opinion that by accepting the money, it’s like entering into an implicit contract with the public to report back to the public on policy-relevant issues that are informed by your science.”
Noon notes that’s actually part of the explicit mission of land-grant universities, “to actually engage on policy-relevant issues in Colorado and nationwide.”
Indeed, CSU’s mission reads, “Inspired by its land-grant heritage, Colorado State University is committed to excellence, setting the standard for public research universities in teaching, research, service and extension for the benefit of the citizens of Colorado, the United States and the world.” Noon says that in essence, he and his colleagues view it as “a responsibility to engage,” adding, “In my opinion, as a state employee funded by tax payer dollars, we have a responsibility to deploy our knowledge in the service of society in Colorado and beyond.”
In response to CPW’s predator plans, Noon says, “I would speak to the fact that this is not scientifically justified.” He adds that if the goal is to benefit wildlife in the largest sense, “we need to look at what environmental drivers, or key stressors, are putting wildlife populations most at risk.”
Noon says the key stressors experienced by wildlife populations are habitat loss, declines in habitat quality and the fragmentation of habitat — not short-term losses due to predation. “In contrast,” Noon says, “land-use/land-change effects are growing in extent in Colorado, are chronic in nature, and effectively irreversible.”
Those become high priority areas for research, specifically focused on how to mitigate their adverse effects, Noon concludes.
The fate of CPW’s predator management plans remains unknown, but their energy policy and its implementation are obvious. CPW is required to balance oil and gas extraction with wildlife and its habitats; a balancing act that is proving impossible. Despite their own findings and the best available science, CPW continues to defend their plans while devoting their efforts to shielding the reputation of the oil and gas industry. If this continues, belief in the agency may well wane, and scrutiny of it’s inner workings will certainly intensify.
Before Coloradans stand by and watch the unnecessary (according to the science) slaughter of our state’s most majestic large predators — mountain lions and bears — they are owed the truth.
CPW, the CPW Commissioners and their overseers at the Department of Natural Resources must publically explain why the agencies fabricated the science in the land swap EAs in order give oil and gas companies the lands they wanted to drill. Or, if that science was not fabricated, they must explain why they are fabricating the science now in the predator plans in order to provide cover for the oil and gas industry’s negative impact on the state’s mule deer population which has already been explained within the earlier EAs.
They cannot have it both ways. Before the killing is allowed to begin, officials from the state of Colorado must choose which of their explanations for diminishing mule deer populations is true. Is it predation, the position that has only recently been posited and which has virtually no support from the scientific community? Or is it the extraction practices of the oil and gas industry, which even the CPW itself has long claimed is a major culprit in mule deer declines and is a position more fully supported by the scientific community?
We’re waiting for the answer.