Off Target Part 5: New potential motives for the killing of bears and mountain lions emerge

Off Target: Part 5

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Wikimedia Commons/dh Reno

Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 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: Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4). The two plans in question are the Upper Arkansas River and Piceance Basin predator control plans.

The plans call for the killing of Colorado’s iconic mountain lions and black bears in what is alleged to be an 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, two lawsuits challenging the plans have been filed.

Gail Keirn, public affairs official with the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services (WS), confirmed the agency began efforts to capture and remove or relocate black bears and mountain lions on behalf of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) in the Piceance Basin predator control area on May 1.

According to Keirn, snares are being used to live capture animals, “and at that point,” she says, “CPW makes the determination of what species is in the snare, and whether or not it’s a female with cubs or an adult.” CPW’s plan states family groups will not be killed, but relocated. However, if the animal is a target adult animal, Keirn says, that animal will be killed with a firearm.

WildEarth Guardians have a pending lawsuit challenging the legality of killing a trapped animal as Keirn describes. But as of Tuesday, May 9, Denver County District Judge Robert L. McGahey Jr. denied WildEarth Guardians’ motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in that lawsuit, which would have halted the killing of mountain lions and bears under the predator plans until the merits of the lawsuit are heard. The requested restraining order and injunction were deemed necessary by those proposing it because CPW plans to kill upwards of 40 mountain lions and bears in the Piceance area over the next month and a half. It’s possible the killing will be over before the lawsuit can be concluded.

On May 9, BW asked Keirn whether or not any mountain lions or bears had already been killed as a function of the Piceance Basin predator control plan. She said she could not confirm that. CPW did not respond to BW’s request for that same information prior to press time.

But the previously mentioned lawsuit against CPW’s predator control plans isn’t the only one. On April 12, Matt Bishop and John Mellgren of Western Environmental Law Center, along with Stuart Wilcox, staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians, joined forces on behalf of WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity in a lawsuit against WS in U.S. District Court. WS has been contracted by CPW, primarily with federal aid funds for wildlife restoration, to carry out the killing of mountain lions and black bears as a part of the predator control plans. According to Bethany Cotton, WildEarth Guardians wildlife program director, the lawsuit against WS argues the federal wildlife-killing program failed to fully analyze the environmental impacts of its destruction of wildlife in Colorado.

“Wildlife Services is once again using taxpayer dollars to kill native wildlife while ignoring science and public opinion,” says Cotton, adding, “The public is entitled to know the full environmental impacts of publicly funded, scientifically unsound and ethically bankrupt wildlife killing.”

And according to the Western Environmental Law Center’s Bishop, “The best available science reveals loss of habitat from oil and gas development is the driving factor in mule deer decline, not predation from black bears and mountain lions.”

WS refused to comment due to the pending litigation.

Relative to Bishop’s assertion that habitat impact from oil and gas activity is to blame for mule deer declines, a recent open records request by BW discovered CPW’s Piceance Basin mule deer research is primarily funded by the oil and gas industry. This is the very research used to justify the CPW-approved predator control plans, which lay no blame whatsoever on the cumulative impacts of oil and gas extraction for the mule deer’s troubles, and instead calls for the deaths of hundreds of mountain lions and bears to increase the deer population. This is also the same research CPW used to garner its $3.4 million federal aid in wildlife restoration grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which is covering 75 percent of the total ($4.6 million) cost of its predator plans.

Of the total $2.95 million that has funded CPW’s mule deer research in the Piceance Basin since 2007, $1.6 million, or 54 percent came directly from oil and gas companies, with another $1.19 million coming from oil and gas industry proceeds via the state’s severance tax between 2008-11. Marathon Energy kicked in $40,000; Shell Oil $165,000; Williams Energy $172,000; $333,135 came from Encana Oil and Gas Corporation, while $851,316 came from ExxonMobil Corporation. In addition, another $150,000 in 2008-09 came from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).

As for non-oil and gas funding, CPW received $35,000 from the Mule Deer Association, and $15,000 from the Mule Deer Foundation.

Wikimedia Commons/Jitze Couperus
Recent research shows human-bear conflicts are not a good measurement for bear populations.

Not only does the oil and gas industry own the mineral rights under the Piceance Basin, a significant portion of the surface rights to the area’s private lands where the predator control area is being carried out are owned by Encana Oil and Gas Corporation and Exxon Mobil Corporation. These are the top two private funders of CPW’s mule deer research, which found oil and gas activity was not having an impact on deer populations — a finding that is contrary to what other scientists believe to be true.

     

Obviously this funding pattern doesn’t unequivocally mean CPW is exhibiting funding bias on behalf of the oil and gas industry. However, in the context of the predator control plans, where CPW’s own earlier and non-oil and gas funded research concluded that oil and gas extraction and suburban development, not predators, are the primary drivers of mule deer population decline, it certainly looks bad. And that has huge ramifications in a state where citizens love their large predators and would, no doubt, be disturbed to find out that funding bias might well be influencing CPW’s decision to kill hundreds of mountain lions and black bears.

In 2016, a non-oil and gas funded study conducted by CPW and Colorado State University (CSU) researchers found that increases in oil and gas activity — such as drilling rigs, well pads, pipelines, processing and transfer facilities, and roads — and residential development on deer ranges are not compatible with the goal of maintaining highly productive mule deer populations. The study was funded by CPW’s auction and raffle grant program, which comes as a result of proceeds from conservation nonprofits intended for the study of big game species in Colorado.

Another lingering question — besides whether or not the funding sources influence research results — concerns the predator plans’ lack of a predator population baseline, which is to say, how many black bear and mountain lions are currently in the control areas. CPW has admitted it doesn’t know. Critics point out that without a scientifically accurate base number for the predators, it is impossible to know if they are really to blame for the mule deer population decline or if they are being over-killed by the CPW control plans to the detriment of the ecosystem. A number of critics, including biologists, have questioned why CPW didn’t use a portion of its oil and gas industry funds intended for mule deer research to more accurately determine mountain lion and black bear populations prior to ordering the slaughter of an unknown percentage of the predator population currently residing in the control area.

CPW’s lack of black bear and mountain lion population data is an important element of the two lawsuits. Both CPW and WS are mandated to preserve the proper ecological balance of the environment in all management actions, and a shocking confirmation of this lack of baseline information occurred when Chuck Anderson, CPW mammals research section leader and Piceance Basin predator control plan principal investigator, told BW he believes there are actually fewer mountain lions and more mule deer in the Piceance Basin predator control plan area than CPW has estimated. Why such revelations from within the CPW have failed to halt the killing of Colorado’s most spectacular wildlife species until the science catches up to the execution orders is a mystery. But some most certainly will point to CPW’s close oil and gas industry ties and funding.

In an affidavit attached to the lawsuit that recently saw its request for a temporary restraining order dismissed, Mat Alldredge, CPW researcher and Upper Arkansas River Predator control plan principal investigator, states that no mountain lions have been killed by contract houndsmen or WS this year in the Upper Arkansas River area, and the earliest that mountain lions would be killed as part of the plan is January 2018. His affidavit goes on to add that killing mountain lions will only be done with a good understanding of current population levels, adding more logistically feasible approaches to estimate populations of bears and mountain lions at the state level do not exist, and that he has been actively researching new approaches for the last five years.

Anderson also submitted an affidavit, claiming the Piceance Basin predator control plan has been designed such that changes in the mountain lion and black bear populations are, “biologically insignificant and will have little to no influence on the much larger population.” Yet CPW has consistently admitted they have no specific population estimates of bear and mountain lion populations for either of the predator control areas, which would seem to disqualify Anderson’s claim. Simply put, if you don’t know how many predators there are to begin with, then you can’t know that killing hundreds of them will be “biologically insignificant” in those areas or at larger regional levels.

This all leads to the question, why isn’t CPW devoting a portion of the millions of dollars in federal wildlife restoration aid it receives from USFWS or the millions it gets from the oil and gas industry to develop more accurate predator population estimates? The answer may be because CPW doesn’t want to know.

Anderson’s affidavit fails to address another important and oddly overlooked component of the Piceance Basin predator plan, namely, the impact of having relocated “nuisance” black bears from other areas into the Piceance Basin predator control area for several years. Apparently, Anderson was made aware of this relocation process only after the Parks and Wildlife Commission approved the plans in December 2016, and after he had already applied for a $483,220 grant from the USFWS. One could argue that if bears are being relocated into an area at the same time they are being killed in that area to reduce their population, and the left hand seems unaware of what the right hand is doing, someone may need to hit the breaks until CPW gets its facts straight.

Ron Velarde, CPW Northwest Region manager, confirmed to BW that black bears have been routinely relocated to the Piceance Basin predator control area for at least the last five years, primarily during the spring and summer, which are the very same seasons during which CPW claims to have seen increased black bear predation on mule deer fawns — something they hope to fix by killing bears and mountain lions.

CPW refused to release records of black bear relocations to the Piceance Basin to BW under Colorado’s open records law, citing Colorado Revised Statutes, stating release of that information “would be contrary to the public interest.”

This apparent oversight leaves unclear whether or not any of the bears CPW plans to kill or has killed are the same as those they relocated to the predator control area themselves in an effort to prevent those bears from having to be destroyed. It’s hard to believe that CPW could really be this poorly organized, which raises the question of what other explanation, aside from gross incompetence, could account for its actions with regard to the relocated bears.

Could it be that CPW has set up a way to avoid bad public relations by relocating black bears to the Piceance Basin, only to kill them later under the guise of a scientific research study, or as we’ll later see, for supposedly damaging livestock in that area? It would certainly be a far more out-of-sight approach to killing bears that have encroached on populated areas because of suburban development into natural bear habitat than shooting the animals where there is sure to be media coverage of the killing and an accompanying public outcry.

And if Anderson wasn’t aware of the relocation of black bears to the proposed study area when he applied for a wildlife restoration grant from the USFWS, and he cannot say whether or not such translocations affect the very data used as scientific justification for the plan’s proposal and the required environmental assessment that was put forward, it is possible CPW’s wildlife restoration grant funds could be in jeopardy.

When queried about this issue by BW, Robert Segin, USFWS public affairs officer said, “We based our grant award approvals on the information included in the grant applications. The information supported the need, purpose and approach for the two wildlife research projects.”

That being the case, the fact that the impact of relocated black bears on mule deer fawns isn’t addressed in the “information included” in CPW’s grant application should raise serious red flags for the predator plans and the grant. As of press time, the USFWS has yet to respond to the question of whether or not they believe their approval of CPW’s grant was improper as a result of this new information, and in fact, have ceased commenting on the plans entirely because of the pending litigation against other agencies.

Another potential motive for at least one of the predator plans could be the connection between the Piceance Basin predator control area and livestock damage claim payouts.

The Piceance Basin predator control plan states the proposed killing of mountain lions and black bears is, “consistent with the current mountain lion management objective in this rural area — to maintain relatively low predator densities for reducing livestock conflicts,” adding the area is one of four in the state managed to minimize livestock conflicts. This obviously raises the question of why CPW would relocate black bears into an area where they are trying to maintain “low predator densities.”

But what is clear is black bears and mountain lions cost CPW money in the form of livestock damage claim payouts.

CPW is liable for any livestock, such as sheep, goats and cattle that are killed by big game animals, including bears and mountain lions. However, CPW is not liable for damages by coyotes. CPW is also liable for damages caused to agricultural resources by mule deer and elk, and in fact, according to CPW data, elk and deer often cost CPW more in damage payouts than mountain lions, while black bears tend to cost CPW the most.   

With regard to mountain lions, in CPW’s current (2004) Mountain Lion Management Plan, which includes the Piceance Basin, they note that mountain lion damage to domestic livestock has been significant, and that most of the damage being done is to domestic sheep. To reduce livestock conflicts, CPW decided mountain lion populations in the area in question would be reduced, assuming a correlation, which is likely part of the reason Anderson noted the Piceance Predator Control Plan would reduce livestock conflicts.

BW reviewed all available CPW Annual Game Damage Reports between 2009-16, and found that over the eight-year period in the area covered by the Piceance Basin Predator Control Plan, an average of 86 percent of total payments were for damage reportedly caused by black bears and mountain lions to domestic sheep. And in the same period, the same area was responsible for 28 percent of the state’s overall livestock damage payouts. It’s a considerable percentage of damage payments considering the area comprises only 6 percent of the state’s total game damage areas.

According to CPW’s Human-Bear Conflict Report issued in late December 2015, black bear predation on domestic sheep usually begins in May and peaks in July. This timing makes sense because it follows the period when black bears have just left their dens and are in a state of near starvation because they’ve been in hibernation, and there’s not yet a lot of new forage for them to eat at that time. It’s likely not a coincidence that this is the exact time of year when CPW plans to be killing the Piceance’s black bears.

This effort to reduce livestock damage payouts to sheepherders, which comes solely at the cost of already-stressed black bears and mountain lions, appears to be in conflict with the spirit of Colorado House Bill 15-1304 that caused the Human-Bear Conflict Report to be issued by CPW.

Rep. Steve Lebsock (D-Northglenn) who put the bill forward, says its intent was to prevent the killing of black bears because of human conflicts, including those with livestock, not to justify killing black bears.

Wikimedia Commons/Jitze Couperus
Preventing cub starvation is one of the reasons spring killing of bears is discouraged.

Lebsock’s bill was crafted in response to an earlier bill proposal that would have expanded spring bear hunting, which Lebsock says would have conflicted with a statewide initiative passed in the 1990s that prevents the killing of bears in spring, because, Lebsock says, “When you hunt bears in the spring, the momma bears have the baby bears tagging along, and if you kill the momma bear, then the baby bears starve to death.”

Lebsock’s legislation required CPW to come up with solutions such as the 2015 report, that identified ways to mitigate human-bear conflicts so that bears aren’t always just euthanized, but that human impacts and behavior are also accounted for and addressed. “What we need to realize,” Lebsock says, “is that inevitably there are going to be some conflicts [between people and bears] because our population in Colorado is growing, and we are developing into areas of the state that have historically been wild areas previously undeveloped.”

Which brings us full circle back to the non-oil and gas funded research of CPW which found, as Lebsock confirms, not only does suburban expansion into previously wild areas increase human-black bear conflicts, it also decreases mule deer populations, and even more so when the cumulative impacts of oil and gas extraction are added to the equation.

The 2015 Human-Bear Conflict Report says that payments for domestic sheep killed by bears is the largest component of CPW damage costs, rising significantly when natural bear forage is limited. It’s a cost that CPW may be attempting to pre-empt in the Piceance Basin, by killing upwards of 40 bears and mountain lions. But again, it seems to fly in the face of Lebsock’s bill, which was an attempt to pay damages in order to prevent the killing of bears, which is the exact opposite of CPW’s current actions.

Another disturbing piece of research coming out of CPW also points to an additional potential flaw in the agency’s management of the black bear population. It stems from the fact that CPW uses human-bear conflicts to estimate bear populations and therefore to set hunting license quotas for bears.

A recent six-year study conducted by CPW carnivore and ungulate researcher Heather Johnson found that increasing bear-human conflicts do not mean the bear population is growing, but that bears are adapting to take advantage of urban expansion, which, a Denver Post article covering the study notes, “will compel a rethinking of Colorado’s current approach of boosting bear hunting based on the number of conflicts reported in an area.”

Over the course of six years in Johnson’s study area, she found a 60 percent decline in the female bear population. She also established that rising temperatures around dens and urban development in black bear habitat shorten hibernation, which creates more conflicts with people. And if increased suburban expansion leads to decreased bear populations and more human-bear conflicts, as Johnson found, then CPW’s policy of determining bear hunting quotas based on these conflicts may be actually causing bear populations to decline exponentially.

In January 2017, the bear hunting quotas in the Piceance Basin area were increased by CPW. Their quota increase proposal states, “The goal has been to reduce these bear populations and to indirectly reduce the number of human-bear conflicts,” adding, “This approach provides opportunities for bears to be harvested by hunters rather than killed for conflict or as road kills.”

Without even knowing how many bears are currently in the Piceance Basin, adding all of these layers of opportunities to destroy the area’s bears seems short-sighted at best, and could yield disastrous consequences for bears based on CPW’s own non-oil and gas funded research.

And the same goes for mountain lions in the Piceance Basin. On top of the 15-20 mountain lions set to be killed as a result of CPW’s predator control plan, between 2014-2016, CPW increased mountain lion hunting quotas in the overall area, where it claims a need to control livestock damages, from 153 licences to 169 per year.

“I think the state and the CPW need to find a way to incentivize the purchase of dogs to protect our livestock,” Lebsock says. “That’s a solution. Instead of tens of thousands of dollars [in livestock damage payments], maybe somebody should invest in some dogs that can protect our livestock.”

But no one has said how the State will address the impacts of oil and gas on wildlife and their habitats, including rising temperatures from fossil-fuel driven climate change. And though it’s not a surprise in a state where the oil and gas industry enjoys an oversized influence over all aspects of state government, the citizens of Colorado have the right to a response.

WildEarth Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuits against CPW and WS are pending. Those taxpayer-funded organizations continue to pursue, with deadly intent, the mountain lions and bears of the oil and gas rich Piceance Basin, despite the growing body of research calling such actions into question.

Go to Off target Part 6

Return to beginning of Off Target series Part 1

To contact Rico Moore go to ricomoore.com

  • flower

    Very sad indeed

  • keenasira

    Kudos to Rico Moore and the Boulder Weekly for this exposé.

    As a wildlife biologist, it’s one of the best series I’ve ever read on the conflicts and resulting habitat degradation that oil and gas development has had not only on big game, but the boatloads (sorry, Noah) of non-game species that are also being lost. CPW has been hamstrung for a long time, beginning with the “cost-cutting” measures of combining Parks with the old DOW. CPW is also an after-thought and the industry knows full well that the agency is politically weak and the research and “habitat restoration” money they throw at the agency is chump-change compared to the profits a well can bring.

    True, the industry is way down right now with market prices being so low, but the damage has already been done…the Piceance is a fragmented mess of roads, pipeline rights-of-way, poorly reclaimed well pads, compressor stations…the list goes on. And then you have out-of-state hunters who complain when they can’t fill their tags each fall.

    Local communities then complain when the hotel and restaurant revenues decline further when those hunters who fail to fill their tags, much less even see an animal, don’t return. CPW, no matter what they do, looks like they can do nothing but excel at mismanagement…and to a fairly large extent it is.

    I suspect , however, no CPW biologist and/or area manager is happy about their situation, and to those men and women who hang in there, they deserve credit because they are the last stand in many cases. Though as this series points out, it isn’t much of any stand and predators are unscientifically being singled-out when the real problem gets green-washed by industry throwing money at studies.

  • photodeb

    The numbers were presented to Wildlife Services, and they refused to accept the truth! Low mule deer numbers is due to off roading, poaching, development, fracking, drilling, and mining.. And far less if any blame to predators.

  • Edward Kavanaugh

    I don’t live in Colorado but you guys who do should get yourselves involved in a major effort when Denver county elections come up and vote out Denver County District Judge Robert L. McGahey Jr. and all the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Commissioners.

  • WildWatch_Maine

    Sincere thanks and gratitude for outstanding, in-depth reporting on this important subject. The broad issue of managing wildlife to boost game populations needs to be investigated across the nation, but it is rare for news organizations to take it up and devote the professional resources necessary to report it properly. Your series is being shared across the U.S. and Canada. Bravo!