On Dec. 14, 2016, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Commission unanimously approved two separate management plans for determining the degree to which predation by mountain lions and black bears affects mule deer populations in Colorado. To do so, the Piceance Basin and Upper Arkansas River Predator Management Plans both call for the killing of these predators. The plans are to be carried out beginning sometime this spring.
Understandably, these plans have sparked controversy and strong opposition. They are largely unpopular among prominent scientists working in the field of wildlife ecology, conservationists and private citizens. The conservation group WildEarth Guardians recently filed a lawsuit against CPW, the CPW Commission and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which oversees the CPW, challenging the plans in Denver County District Court.
While the management plans garnered support from outfitters, ranchers, farmers, hunting groups and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), those opposing the plans point to land-use development as the actual primary factor limiting mule deer populations. They argue the proliferation of residential growth and oil and gas development have cumulative impacts on the mule deer population far greater than predation, and claim that those industrial impacts have not been adequately taken into consideration.
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According to CPW data, between 2006-2008, mule deer populations dropped statewide by 146,000 deer. In the four years following, populations continued to fall, but with less severity, declining by 104,200 deer.
On Aug. 10, 2012, CPW Commission received a letter from CPW staff regarding mule deer population decline.
The unsigned letter, acquired through an open records request, states that while multiple factors are likely responsible for the decline, predators like mountain lions and bears had been noted by “constituents” as being of particular concern.
CPW estimates that between 3,000-7,000 mountain lions and 17,000-20,000 black bears live in Colorado, although it’s difficult to be precise because of the predators’ solitary nature and general avoidance of people.
Black bears are the sole type of bear known to Colorado. According to The Denver Post, the last definitive sighting of a grizzly bear occurred in 1979, when a bow hunter was attacked by a female grizzly south of Pagosa Springs. He killed the grizzly by hand with an arrow.
Apparently to align with these concerns about predation impacting mule deer populations, the letter charted a course to “frame” the future management of mountain lions, bears and mule deer via the CPW Commission and CPW research.
Around the same time, Chuck Anderson, CPW mammals research section leader, had an “epiphany” as he looked at mule deer growth rate data he had been collecting since 2008 in the Piceance Basin. Befuddled by the relatively low survival rate of 0-to-6-month-old mule deer fawns, he had a hunch they were being eaten by predators, like mountain lions and bears, to the degree that it might be impacting their population growth rates. Anderson’s hunch appears to have dovetailed with the aforementioned letter.
But two days later on Aug. 12, 2012, CPW released “The Colorado Predator Management Briefing Paper,” prepared by mammal researcher Chad Bishop and others, which states that the preponderance of evidence for mule deer population limitation in Colorado points to habitat/density dependence rather than predation.
The researchers note that even when predation is implicated as a limiting factor, predator control programs may have little effect on the abundance or population trends of prey species, such as mule deer, and may have unintended consequences on species interactions.
They also caution that such predator control plans may have costs not justified by the results, may require a disproportionate amount of resources to be effective and may not be supported by the general public.
Then in June 2014, the Keystone Policy Center, who was contracted by CPW to conduct a public outreach effort on the reasons for mule deer decline, presented their findings to the CPW Commission. Even though mule deer population had been steadily increasing since 2013, predation was once again cited, among other factors, as possibly limiting mule deer populations. This report was a critical justification for what was becoming CPW’s “mule deer strategy.”
Following Keystone’s presentation, CPW Commissioner Bill Kane cautioned against the methodology of the external stakeholder approach because it measured an interaction of multiple variables affecting mule deer populations as if they were discrete.
Kane remarked that such a model often leads to unintended consequences, where focusing on one possible factor, such as predation, can send the ecosystem “wildly out of kilter.”
Ron Velarde, CPW northwest region manager, then suggested CPW develop a strategy to frame a path forward, working through the CPW Commission and “the science.” He suggested CPW determine a particular area where predators might be affecting mule deer populations.
Two years later in Dec. 2016 the CPW Commission approved the Piceance Basin and Upper Arkansas River Predator Management Plans, despite mule deer population recovery. The most recent estimate of 435,660 deer is from 2015.
According to CPW, results of the management plans could be used to inform predator harvest and management decisions in the future.
Would killing predators increase mule deer populations?
The architects of CPW’s predator management plans believe that the kill areas are ones where the deer population isn’t limited by their habitat, and therefore believe killing mountain lions and bears might improve mule deer growth and survival rates.
“It’s very rare where you have predation by itself limiting juvenile [fawn] survival,” says Joel Berger, a preeminent wildlife conservation biologist at Colorado State University (CSU) and a critic of the plan.
Berger, along with CSU colleagues Kevin Crooks and Barry Noon wrote a letter in opposition to CPW’s plans, asserting that they aren’t supported by science. Noon, professor of fish, wildlife and conservation biology at CSU, contends that CPW is showing a preference toward ungulates, such as mule deer, that isn’t justified by the current state of those species.
“What is well known is that the species in North America, and globally, in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems that are at greatest risk of loss, and have experienced the most significant population declines, are large-bodied predators,” he says.
Instead of looking at predation, the agency should be directing its research to other more relevant questions, “such as whether the mule deer populations in question are being limited by habitat quality and food limitation,” Berger says.
The CSU researchers bolster this assertion by citing a peer-reviewed study conducted by some of CPW’s own scientists, who found increasing residential and energy development within deer habitat correlated with declining mule deer recruitment rates, particularly within seasonal winter ranges.
In their lawsuit, WildEarth Guardians asserts that CPW is, in fact, unable to make a determination of effects to the bear and mountain lion populations impacted by their plans because they are unable to accurately determine predator populations in the management areas. As such, WildEarth Guardians alleges that CPW is not adequately protecting these species or ensuring the ongoing health of their populations, and are thereby in violation of their statutory mandate and mission.
CPW is housed within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is tasked with managing the water, land, wildlife, minerals, energy, geology and outdoor recreation resources in Colorado “for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future citizens and visitors.”
CPW’s predator management plans are guided by its mammalian predator management policy. Among other criteria, the policy stipulates that the agency will consider ecological relationships that will be affected by predator management plans.
However, CPW’s Anderson says the population of predators before and after suppression — killing — isn’t the focus of the study. “It’s whether or not we can reduce the predation rates on the fawns,” he says.
In an effort to do so, the combined cost of the nearly three-year Piceance Basin Predator Management Plan and the nine-year long Upper Arkansas River Predator Management Plan would be $4.6 million dollars.
Upper Arkansas River Predator Management Plan
According to CPW estimates, in the Upper Arkansas Predator management area, the mule deer population increased by 20 percent between 2010-2015. However, according to CPW, based on survival data, the rate of mule deer population growth and survival “might partially be limited” by mountain lion predation on fawns and adult does.
CPW estimates 270 mountain lions currently live in the area, but over the nine-year management period, the kill quota would be between 316-346 mountain lions. According to CPW data, between 1994-2003, 256 mountain lions were killed in the area, or an average of 26 per year, with some years experiencing slightly higher numbers of death because of road kill and “control kills.”
As a result of the management plan, CPW hopes to gain an understanding of the effects on mule deer population demographics relative to changes in mountain lion density, as well as to determine their ability to manipulate mountain lion populations through sport-hunting or harvest. But this will come at a cost.
CPW Wildlife Researcher Ken Logan and co-author Linda Sweanor wrote a book titled, Desert Puma: Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation of an Enduring Carnivore. Their book describes the “collateral damage” that comes with mountain lion sport-hunting.
Logan and Sweanor speak of mountain lion hunters who have told them “disastrous stories” of trailing hounds mauling mountain lion kittens to death, mistakenly identifying a female mountain lion, killing it legally, abandoning it for a larger “trophy male,” and orphaning the mother’s cubs. When they are less than nine months old, Logan and Sweanor say, such cubs usually die, and older cubs stand less of a chance of survival. They suspect that with increased hunting on mountain lions, there is also an increase in collateral damage.
Representatives from the Cougar Fund, Mountain Lion Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society of the U.S., Endangered Species Coalition, Wildlife Committee and Arkansas River Audubon Society noted further impacts from CPW’s plans in a letter of opposition.
These groups claim when stable adult mountain lions are removed from a population, the disruption causes social chaos in their society. The loss of adults encourages sub-adult males, naturally less skilled at hunting, to immigrate, and studies show that this influx is likely to be involved in human and livestock conflicts as well as causing increased infanticide on mountain lion kittens.
The Piceance Basin Predator Management Plan
In the Piceance Basin management area, Anderson’s target is to kill 30 mountain lions and bears each year during the spring and summer. However, he says, they might go as high as 40, killing approximately 15 mountain lions and 25 bears each year for three years. The total kill quota for the management plan would be 90-120 mountain lions and bears.
According to CPW information, most Colorado bears are active from mid-March through early November. This is the same period of time CPW claims to have seen increased predation rates on young mule deer fawns. According to CPW’s program narrative for predator management plans in the Piceance, between 2011–2015 bears killed 14 percent of radio-collared young fawns.
However, the management plan as proposed never accounted for the translocation of “problem” bears to the Roan Plateau in the Piceance Basin. Bears have been routinely relocated to this area for at least the last five years, according to CPW’s Velarde.
Anderson says he wasn’t even aware of the translocated bears until recently.
“There have been problem bears put up there, and who knows, that might be part of our problem,” he says.
Critics of the agency’s plans to start killing predators point to such a lack of information and communication as a major cause for concern with the CPW’s decision to move forward with the predator management plans.
Additionally, the area covered by CPW’s Piceance Basin plan has been scarred by significant oil and gas development, which continues today but was largely the result of the natural gas boom that occurred in the area between 2006-2008.
The area is a hodge-podge of mostly private lands, with some public lands held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) while still other tracts are owned by oil and gas companies. Within the Garfield County portion of the management area, much of the land is under lease to companies like Encana Oil and Gas, Exxon, Chevron, Mobil Oil and Laramie Energy.
These natural mule deer ranges are interspersed with well pads, drilling rigs, condensate tanks, pipelines, compressor stations and countless miles of roads cut by the industry and still filled with its diesel trucks and pickups full of oil and gas workers.
CPW says it has looked at the impacts of oil and gas development, which has informed its wildlife mitigation plans, voluntary and non-regulatory agreements between the state and oil and gas companies. But CPW doesn’t have a formal tool to measure the success of these mitigation plans. Despite this reality, it deems them successful.
According to DNR Communications Director Todd Hartman, CPW consults with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) on wildlife issues, but does not have regulatory oversight of those activities.
CSU’s Berger notes that the state, CPW included, didn’t oppose the drilling of 15,000 new oil and gas wells in the area, despite CPW’s own research and constituents’ perception, which reflect that oil and gas development is limiting mule deer populations.
“The state has a prerogative to oppose, but it did not,” Berger says.
Instead, CPW’s Velarde has arranged agreements between the agency and oil and gas companies to conduct the predator-killing efforts on oil and gas company owned land.
When oil and gas boomed, mule deer populations plummeted
CPW’s Anderson first gathered mule deer population data in 2008 for the Piceance Basin. Before then, the last time it was collected was in 1996. He noted that it would take a 10 percent shift in the population before he would notice it in his monitoring efforts.
According to COGCC data, statewide oil and gas drilling permits reached their peak in 2008, with 8,000 filed permits. Other big years included 2006 and 2007, with 5,900 and 6,300 permits filed respectively.
Oil and gas development was booming statewide, but particularly so in the Piceance Basin of Northwestern Colorado.
COGCC data shows drilling activity in Garfield, Mesa, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties reached its peak in 2008, with 2,061 active drilling rigs; in 2007, there were 1,562.
Colorado wildlife law violations also reached their peak statewide between 2006-2008, according to CPW data. In Garfield, Mesa, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, there were 1,232 violations in 2006, and 1,188 violations in 2008. These violations included poaching.
Two massive, statewide drops in mule deer populations occurred between 2006-2008, the same time period oil and gas exploration and wildlife law violations were booming, both statewide and in the Piceance Basin.
Between 2006-2007, the mule deer herd studied in the Piceance Basin Predator Management Plan crashed by 26 percent, or 24,600 mule deer. Between 2007-2008, the population continued its decline, dropping another 21 percent, or 15,040 mule deer.
That is a drop in the CPW-estimated population in the Piceance Basin from 95,980 mule deer in 2006, to 56,340 in 2008 — a drop of nearly 40,000 deer in two years, or a 41 percent loss in the population.
On Oct. 2, 2006, as oil and gas drilling was increasing in the Piceance Basin, CPW issued a news release noting, among other things, an increase in poaching during winter months in low-lying areas. Specifically, CPW emphasized oil and gas development as an additive source of poaching. “The expansion of natural gas drilling,” the release stated, “has brought increased traffic and, once again, increasing numbers of headless carcasses being found.”
Furthermore, according to CPW Chief of Wildlife Law Enforcement Bob Thompson, oil and gas booms are often associated with increased poaching.
“When you get these energy booms, you basically have these big man camps set up out in rural areas. You have a bunch of, usually, young men that when they’re not working, they have some free time on their hands, and that’s when they go out and do this poaching.”
In a study titled, “Effects of Agricultural, Industrial, and Recreational Expansion on Frequency of Wildlife Law Violations in the Central Rocky Mountains, USA,” researchers found human population increases in areas of oil and gas boom were correlated with increases in wildlife law violations, whereas human population booms of a recreation or agrarian nature didn’t see wildlife law violations increase.
The researchers chose Garfield, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, as their mining study area (“mining” includes oil and gas activity), which are all within the Piceance Basin Predator Management Plan.
In one of the years studied, researchers found that when mining associated employment increased, “these changes were coupled with a 200 percent increase in wildlife law violations.”
The researchers state that the need exists to determine the extent to which wildlife law violations actually alter the size of animal populations. As such, an increase in wildlife law violations may be correlated with an increase in poaching, and potentially, a decrease in mule deer populations.
For obvious reasons, such information on poaching is critical to take into account before eliminating predators as the culprit for declining mule deer populations.
By some estimates, only 1-5 percent of poachers are caught. According to a news release issued by CPW in 2016, “Some national studies indicate that poachers kill almost as many animals as legitimate hunters do during legal seasons.” This statement is reiterated, verbatim, in similar CPW news releases in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2015, respectively.
According to CPW deer harvest data, between 2005-2015, the average number of deer killed by hunters per year was approximately 40,000. As such, the total take of deer from the population could actually be upwards of 80,000 annually, when poaching is taken into account.
Such a number would likely have population-level impacts in certain regions already experiencing other, compensatory difficulties, such as habitat limitation from oil and gas development, for example.
It is likely the case that the cumulative oil and gas impacts on mule deer, including poaching by oil and gas workers and habitat impacts are limiting mule deer populations during times of oil and gas boom to a significant degree. But such impacts have yet to be adequately studied and accounted for.
When asked why oil and gas impacts hadn’t been included in the mule deer strategy, which forms the basis for the predator management plan, CPW’s Velarde replied that it was because the sportsmen didn’t say that oil and gas was one of the major components.
It’s hard to understand why the opinion of sportsmen seems to trump science or at least the lack thereof. But there may be a reason.
CPW’s research division is allocated a certain amount of money each year from the federal government. These funds, from The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, are a result of revenue generated by an excise tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition products.
According to Anderson, his CPW research group must raise, and therefore match, 25 percent of their annual allotment in license sales in order for the remaining 75 percent of federal funds to be disbursed.
License holder numbers are declining in Colorado, according to CPW’s 2015 strategic plan, but the demand for big game licenses exceeds supply, which puts the onus on CPW to increase hunting quotas to ensure their federal funding. The agency is therefore in many ways more responsive to the requests of hunters than other interest groups. As a result, Anderson says, “They maybe pay attention to those folks more than some others.”
Or put another way, the more mule deer, the more funding.
But even if funding is the goal, killing predators isn’t likely the best path forward as predator management plans aren’t likely to increase hunting quotas. A CPW fact sheet titled, “Relationships Among Mule Deer and Their Predators,” states that few studies actually demonstrate reductions in predators resulted in increased hunting opportunities.
There is also the makeup of the CPW Commission to consider as to why oil and gas impacts weren’t considered when looking at mule deer population declines on the Western Slope. CSU’s Noon noted that none of the CPW commissioners have any advanced training in wildlife or fisheries, but yet they’re charged with stewarding Colorado’s wildlife.
And Berger likened the commission to a medical board with no doctors on it, “who are then going to make decisions about policy.”
Of the 11 voting members of the commission, most are involved with farming, ranching, outfitting (hunting and fishing guiding services), water issues, resort development, renewable energy and the oil and gas industry.
Of these commission members, three have worked with or currently work for the oil and gas industry. Commission member James Vigil’s CPW biographical information states he’s been involved as a financial analyst in the mineral development and banking industries. Don Brown’s bio says he’s been active in water conservation, energy development and technology innovation within the oil and gas industry.
Lastly, Parks and Outdoor Recreation representative Chris Castilian is a former manager of government and community relations for Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. He has a decades-long relationship with the oil and gas industry. As a lobbyist in 1996, Castilian received $4,347 from the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association, the predecessor to the Colorado Petroleum Association. Again as a lobbyist in 2005, during his tenure as deputy chief of staff for Governor Bill Owens, Castilian was paid $7,727 by the energy company Phelps Dodge, now known as Freeport McMoRan. He is reportedly now a lobbyist for his own firm, Colorado Solutions.
A fourth commissioner, John V. Howard, appointed by Governor Hickenlooper, advocates for fracking and the oil and gas industry in opinion pieces.
Simply put, it’s not a group likely to point the finger of blame for mule deer declines at the oil and gas industry.
Details of predator “removal”
Regardless of the impacts of oil and gas development on mule deer populations, critics of the predator management plans also argue against the methods of killing mountain lions and bears. In the lawsuit, WildEarth Guardians alleges that the predator management plans are in violation of Colorado Amendment 14, which is intended to prohibit and make unlawful the taking of wildlife by methods including leg-hold traps and snares.
CPW notes that mountain lion and bear removal methods employed for the plans will consist of cage traps, culvert traps, foot snares and trailing hounds for capture.
“A firearm will be used for euthanasia,” according to CPW.
Euthanasia, which is defined as the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma, is a misleading word in this context because CPW’s plans would engage in shooting an otherwise healthy animal in the head or vital area while they’re ensnared by one of their limbs, or treed by a pack of hounds for a purpose which has nothing to do with alleviating that animal’s suffering.
According to CPW, predator control personnel would make every effort to salvage all bear and mountain lion carcasses for disposal.
CPW’s Anderson says that all animal parts that might be profitable on the black market would be destroyed.
USDA’s Wildlife Services will be contracted $50,000 annually to assist in the killing of mountain lions and bears in the Piceance Basin area, rather than hunters. CPW is unclear whether they’ll employ them in the Upper Arkansas River area.
On April 28, 2012, The Sacramento Bee published an in-depth investigation of Wildlife Services around the country, and “found the agency’s practices to be indiscriminate, at odds with science, inhumane and sometimes illegal.”
According to the article, in 2003, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources prosecuted a Wildlife Services trapper who had caught a golden eagle in his trap, and when he discovered it, shot it, buried it and didn’t report it.
The former agency trapper stated, “That was not the only eagle I snared while working for Wildlife Services.” He continued, “I will not say how many. But the one (my supervisor) told me to bury was the first one, and I figured that was what was supposed to be done all the time, so that is what I did.”
WildEarth Guardians staff attorney, Stuart Wilcox, remarks that the agency is secretive and not able to adapt to scientific developments. He stated at the December 2014 CPW hearing that the agency has no way of ensuring that non-target species won’t be caught by Wildlife Services predator snares or traps.
In September 2010, documents obtained through a public records request detail the killing by Wildlife Services of a wolverine in Idaho. The Wildlife Services officer was attempting to trap wolves who were supposedly threatening a rancher’s sheep. When his trap accidentally caught a wolverine, he “shot wolverine due to bad foot.”
Also according to the aforementioned investigative report by The Sacramento Bee, in 2011, a dog’s spine was crushed by a Wildlife Services trap near its family’s home in Oregon.
“We were actually told not to report dogs we killed because it would have a detrimental effect on us getting funded,” a former Wildlife Services employee said.
Wildlife Services snares, traps and/or poison traps have also been responsible for the “non-target” deaths of bald eagles, wolves, river otters, American kestrels and among other animals, mule deer.
“We’re going to trap, too,” Anderson says.
“Independent adults will be killed, and family groups will be moved.”
He plans to dart every female mountain lion or bear they catch to make sure she’s not a lactating mother.
The young-mother mountain lions with older kittens are feeding themselves along with their kittens and Anderson says they kill more deer, so he wants to move them out for a while to give “fawns a chance to get big enough and agile enough to have a chance to evade.”
This will help him determine whether the growth rate of 0-to-6-month-old mule deer fawns is limited solely by predators, by other factors, or by a combination of factors.
He says killing mountain lions and bears is more cost effective and less time consuming than translocating, or moving them out of the area. “It makes people feel better about doing that,” Anderson says, but it’s ultimately not as successful in terms of CPW’s management goals.
Therefore at the December hearing, CPW Counsel Tim Monahan asserted the plans are in accordance with Amendment 14, because of certain exemptions, including the bona fide scientific research exemption, the non-lethal methods of take exemption and the private lands exemption.
But WildEarth Guardians alleges that CPW’s plans do not meet these exemption requirements.
In their lawsuit, WildEarth Guardians also asserts the fact that mule deer populations have been steadily increasing, which they argue, invalidates the need for CPW’s predator management plans. According to the conservation organization, without the costly plans, CPW’s mule deer population target would be met by 2020.
Wilcox says the predator management plans are being used as a red herring to divert attention away from the actual cause limiting mule deer populations, which, he believes, is land use regulation.
Wilcox doesn’t believe CPW is willing to expend the political capital to address this, or weather the political backlash that would ensue as a result. He also argues, as a result of CPW’s approval of the predator management plan, the agency has lost and will continue to lose credibility with an increasing number of Coloradans.
While CPW continues to battle critics of the predator management plans in court, an Environmental Impact Statement is due to begin soon under the National Environmental Protection Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Late June 2016, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released an estimate of natural gas in the Mancos Shale formation of the Piceance Basin. It estimates there to be 66 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which is the second-largest assessment of potential contiguous gas resources the USGS has ever documented.
“It’s huge,” CPW’s Anderson says. “It’s going to boom again.”
If that’s true and history is any indicator, that means mule deer populations will be under pressure again as even more of their habitat is destroyed by the oil and gas industry and poaching by industry workers increases. Unfortunately, if nothing changes at CPW, mountain lions and bears will likely get the blame… and a death sentence.