Federal funding of CPW’s predator control plans was illegal, judge says

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Funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) of the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) two predator control studies for black bears and mountain lions was illegal, a judge ruled in the U.S. District Court of Colorado on March 30. The judge cited a faulty environmental assessment created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, which was adopted and approved by the USFWS. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States and WildEarth Guardians.

The conservation groups hailed the judgment. “This ruling immediately halts the use of taxpayer dollars for the slaughter of Colorado’s mountain lions,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. “I’m so pleased that the court put a stop to these scientifically baseless plans that needlessly targeted Colorado’s ecologically important, native carnivores.”

The conservation groups alleged that the environmental assessment adopted by the USFWS in order to approve funding for CPW’s Upper Arkansas River and Piceance Basin projects was incomplete because it didn’t provide baseline population estimates of black bear and mountain lions in the study areas, which they argued made it impossible to assess the environmental impacts of killing them. The groups also claimed the agency failed to consider scientific research relevant to how predator control plans impact deer populations (See the “Off Target” series at
boulderweekly.com). 

In ruling against the USFWS’ funding of the projects, the judge also cited differences in the environmental assessment between the actions proposed for funding by CPW and the vast majority of Wildlife Services’ actions in Colorado, which primarily deal with responding to livestock depredation and human safety issues. The environmental assessment adopted by the USFWS was created by Wildlife Services, which was contracted by CPW to kill black bears and mountain lions in an effort to reduce predation on wild deer.  

In December 2016, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (PWC) approved the two predator control plans that allowed CPW to conduct two separate studies evaluating whether or not killing black bears and mountain lions might increase mule deer populations. Mule deer hunting license sales provide significant revenue for CPW. Critics claim, however, that native carnivores like black bears and mountain lions are critical to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and don’t actually limit deer populations; instead, weather, climate, development and hunting have a bigger impact on deer populations. Prominent wildlife scientists were highly critical of the plans as they were being approved and implemented. 

The plans have shared origins in CPW’s West Slope Mule Deer Strategy, which previous reporting by BW indicates was based more in CPW’s public outreach design than in science. The Mule Deer Strategy also served as the basis for CPW’s recently approved West Slope Mountain Lion Plan, in which CPW states, “efforts to reduce lion predation impacts to mule deer are likely to be expensive and the effect, if any, is likely to be relatively short-lived.”

Likewise, research has suggested that doing so may actually increase the likelihood of mountain lions attacking people. BW also previously reported that CPW appears to have worked to conceal this from the public in the context of international media attention surrounding an attack. (Critics contend killing female mountain lions often orphans subadult cubs who are more likely to have negative interactions with humans and other animals.) The Upper Arkansas River predator control study area is 25-30 miles from where a boy was attacked by a young mountain lion in 2019. 

The Piceance Basin study was completed in 2019, but the agency has released no information on its findings, despite significant public interest in the plans. The project had significant blunders, including the agency relocating black bears who had gotten into trouble into the very area it was simultaneously studying bear predation on mule deer fawns, potentially tainting its research findings. (The same findings were used to justify the need for a predator control study.) Wildlife Services trappers also killed a mother black bear with cubs during the course of the project. (CPW won’t divulge what was done with the cubs because research analysis isn’t complete.) At its base was a question over whether the move to kill native carnivores wasn’t actually off target, with the real culprits for the population struggles of mule deer in the area more likely the oil and gas industry. (The agency itself admitted as much in documents detailing land exchanges with oil and gas companies.) 

The nine-year-long Upper Arkansas River study was ongoing prior to the judge’s ruling. It was designed to study whether killing approximately 50% of the mountain lion population would impact mule deer populations. However, CPW estimates prior to the study’s beginning showed the deer population was already increasing. Other research indicates that killing mountain lions may actually increase predation on mule deer, as it can lead to an influx of younger animals that prey primarily on deer, having a potentially negative impact on the benefits mountain lions provide to biodiversity. 

Similarly, CPW hasn’t given the public any information regarding preliminary findings — on impacts to mountain lions or mule deer. Given the judge’s ruling that the environmental assessment underlying the major funding for the project is illegal, the status of the project is unclear.

“Any impacts from the ruling to ongoing projects are not yet known,” stated Travis Duncan, public information specialist with CPW.

PWC policy requires that predator control plans don’t jeopardize federal funding, and CPW staff asserted in its 2016 proposal that they didn’t. However, following the judge’s ruling, which said the federal funding that comprised the majority of the projects’ funding was illegal, it is unclear whether the predator control plans prepared by CPW, which depend on that funding, are in accordance with that policy.

 The funding for the two predator control studies came from the USFWS via the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, which comprised 75% of the total funding of the estimated $4.6 million projects. According to conservationists, the judge’s ruling stops the federal agency from further funding the Upper Arkansas River study. But it remains unclear what CPW must do with the money already spent both in that study and the completed one in the Piceance Basin, and what this means for the black bears and mountain lions killed — and the ecosystems they inhabited — in an attempt to boost ailing mule deer populations.

 “The [USFWS] is aware of the court’s decision and will be considering next steps,” stated Allison Stewart, USFWS public affairs specialist, in an email.  

An earlier version of this story misstated the focus of the the Piceance Basin study. We apologize, the story has been updated.