Mountain lion

A sleeping mountain lion, one of two predators targeted by Colorado Parks & Wildlife in its controversial study. (Photo courtesy of CPW)


There seem to be two main types of people who love wildlife in Colorado.

Mesa County Commissioner John Justman is a good example of the type who likes to hunt and supports hunting of most Colorado wildlife. Justman has operated a farm or rented his fields to other farmers in the Grand Junction area for more than 40 years.

Megan Mueller is an example of the type who loves to view wildlife during backcountry treks and opposes the hunting of predators. Mueller grew up in the small town of Phippsburg, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of northwest Colorado, and is a senior conservation biologist for the wildlife protection nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild.

Justman and Mueller represent two sides of the debate regarding whether Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) should be allowed to kill black bears and mountain lions — the state’s largest predators — in multi-year studies that would help determine the animals’ impacts on mule deer populations, which dropped dramatically decades ago and have not recovered, and also the feasibility of hunting predators as a way to manage wildlife. The studies, which were approved by the CPW Commission in December 2016, would begin this spring in two areas: the Piceance Basin, in northwest Colorado, and the Upper Arkansas River area in the center of the state.

Both sides believe they have strong scientific evidence, and moral imperatives, that prove why the studies are necessary or why they are not. In the pro-predator-control camp are government agency scientists and a wide range of hunting industry and association representatives. In the anti-predator-management circle are university scientists and many environmental and animal protection advocates. WildEarth Guardians, whose mission is to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and health of the American West, sued CPW in January to stop the study.

As a result of the lawsuit, CPW is limiting its communications to the public (including journalists) about the proposed studies, and it’s unclear whether or not the ongoing debate will change the timing or other study logistics. Meanwhile, study critics and proponents maintain their positions, and continue to press for some sort of action.

Mueller explained that her organization, Rocky Mountain Wild, has only been peripherally involved in reviewing the study and the effort to oppose it, but adds, “We are opposed to the study based on the opinions of well-respected scientific experts who we trust.”

Meanwhile, Justman said he’s in support of the study, although Mesa County’s commissioners haven’t taken an official position on it. He believes removing predators is justified as a way of improving not only mule deer populations but sage grouse numbers, as well. As a longtime observer of wildlife around southwestern Colorado, he has seen mule deer, bear and mountain lion populations rise and fall, and is concerned that deer are not as abundant as in the past.

“Increasing deer populations is not just so hunters can kill them,” he said. “The general population, whether they are tourists or locals, like to see the deer and take photos of them.”

Deer vs. oil and gas

The Piceance Basin (pronounced Pee-ontz) stretches roughly north from Grand Junction, in Mesa County, through Garfield County, past Rifle and Glenwood Springs, and up to Meeker, in Rio Blanco County. The name is often cited as a Ute word for “tall grass,” though the area is known more for its piñon, juniper and sage-covered sandhills and cliffs.

The basin has very little residential development, but the three counties “are home to the largest populations of migratory elk and mule deer herds in North America,” according to statistics reported by the Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance. The basin also “contains buried gas in a quantity so vast that it defies imagination. Yet Colorado’s Piceance Basin is one of the nation’s biggest reservoirs of natural gas. One day, it may become the nation’s largest gas supplier, if producers can find economical ways to unlock the basin’s captive treasure,” according to an article from The Denver Post posted in October 2001 on Alexander’s Gas & Oil Connections website.

In the same article, Fred Julander, owner of Denver-based Julander Energy, estimated the basin’s total gas accumulation to be 100 tcf (trillion cubic feet)— enough to supply Colorado’s energy needs for 280 years at 2001 consumption rates.

Although a large portion of the land remains publicly owned through the Bureau of Land Management, ever since the 1970s, energy companies have been buying up increasing amounts of property around the basin. An energy development boom that began in 2001 accelerated concern about the impacts of drilling on wildlife.

In 2008, CPW began a study of mule deer populations with the goal of determining whether energy extraction compromised the ability of mule deer to survive on winter ranges. As a way of identifying approaches to energy development that would benefit mule deer populations, the objectives of the research were to study development activity relative to mule deer migration; monitor the animals’ responses to development in order to inform development planning; study newborn fawn survival in developed and undeveloped landscapes; and evaluate “habitat treatments” as a way to mitigate the effects on the mule deer’s environment.

The findings from the first three objectives — which relate to how deer respond to energy development, and fawn survival rates — were released last year (the habitat study will be completed in two more years). The results became the basis for CPW’s energy-site-management recommendations to oil and gas companies. When combined with data from mule deer population studies in the 1980s and ’90s, the data also led to the creation of the controversial predator reduction study.

 “There does appear to be” a connection between the “intensity” of energy development and migration behavior, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Mammals Research Section Leader Chuck Anderson during a Feb. 7 presentation in Ridgway. “Energy sites are busiest at the beginning, when they are being drilled, and deer do avoid those.” 

According to the research results, deer avoided energy sites during the day, when there was more human activity, but not at night. In areas where there were fewer drill pads, the deer had more of an ability to avoid them altogether, and they stayed away at all times. By contrast, the proximity of some sites forced deer to pass over or close to them.    

But CPW’s overall conclusion was that energy development, including road construction after the initial drilling phase, did not have major impacts on deer survival rates, which remained about the same since the 1990s. Deer were observed to be in good physical condition and had high twinning rates (the ability to produce twin offspring is a sign of a doe’s health).

In fact, both deer and fawn populations gradually increased over the seven years of the study, Anderson said. He added that over the same period, development and drilling activity also decreased.

Wildlife advocates vs. CPW

CPW’s conclusion — that energy development did not adversely effect the deer’s survival — is the opposite of the one reached by the Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, which reported in 2011 that “Fragmentation of the migration corridors of migratory deer and elk herds associated with active energy production can reduce the ability of deer and elk to reach critical winter breeding grounds.”

The alliance also shared statistics in its 2011 fact sheet on oil and gas spills in the Piceance Basin not presented by CPW in its research: “Oil and gas companies operating in Garfield, Rio Blanco and Mesa counties in northwest Colorado have reported nearly 1,000 spills that released about 5.6 million gallons of wastewater, oil, and other fluids and chemicals from 2001 to 2010, an analysis of state oil and gas spill data reveals. Less than half of the spilled fluids during that 10-year period were ever recovered. The analysis also reveals that groundwater and surface water have been tainted in at least 77 separate spills in the three counties.”

In contrast to the Bull Moose alliance’s conclusions, the study by CPW would appear to be a blessing for more oil and gas development — and suspicions have been raised about the influence the study’s sources of funding may have had on its conclusions. All of the study’s funding came from the energy industry and hunting associations. Contributors to the research included Exxon, the Colorado Mule Deer Association, Williams (an energy company), the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, Shell, SPEC Energy, Encana, Marathon, Safari Club International, XTO Energy and the Mule Deer Foundation.

At the Ridgway meeting, concerns were raised about the money CPW takes in from the sale of hunting licenses and its possible influence on the integrity of the division’s research. Anderson, who is also an instructor at Idaho State University and Colorado State University, replied, “We’re biologists. We don’t think about things in terms of economics — to a fault. We could increase our (wildlife hunting) tag sales a lot if this were purely an economics-driven issue.”

Follow-up questions about Anderson’s presentation and ongoing decisions about the predator reduction study could not be answered by him, nor by CPW Public Information and Website Manager Lauren Truitt, who stated that her agency “is working through the complaint filed by WildEarth Guardians and is declining to comment at this time. CPW does not typically comment on matters of ongoing litigation.”

Deer vs. habitat

Given that its study did not point to energy development as a factor when it comes to deer survival, CPW shifted its focus to other possible causes for the mule deer population remaining low, compared to their numbers before the 1990s. While the wintertime density of deer in the basin was 63 animals per square kilometer in the mid 1980s, the population declined to about one-third of the previous winter range density, to 23 animals per square kilometer, in the early 1990s.

CPW researchers determined that the sudden drop in population was “likely due to (the number of deer) exceeding the forage capacity on winter range.” 

Yet even with the decreased population demanding less forage habitat, deer numbers have not built back up over the  past two decades. Whether or not habitat has recovered enough to support an increased deer population is where the two sides of the predator-study-debate have the biggest difference of opinion.

Anderson pointed out that the healthy weights and body conditions of adult deer indicate forage is not an issue. 

“Now, deer are increasing one to six percent every year. We don’t want so many deer that the population booms and busts; we want something in between that. And in a lot of areas today, these populations are not limited by habitat,” he said.

He added that housing development on the animals’ winter range is a bigger factor than energy development, but also admitted lots of factors are involved in deer survival. 

Delia Malone, an ecologist who teaches at the Carbondale and Glenwood Springs campuses of Colorado Mountain College, and volunteers as the wildlife committee chair for the Colorado chapter of the Sierra Club, disagrees vehemently with CPW’s habitat analysis.

Having done many years of fieldwork in the Piceance Basin, Malone said, “That area is without a doubt, unequivocally, in bad shape. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have used the BLM’s own data to evaluate the condition of the deer range. If you evaluate the area of the study, the mule deer’s winter range is considered severely damaged.

“The extraction of water for energy development and excessive livestock use has decimated the riparian habitat,” she said. “If you look at a satellite image of that area, dozens of roads were built to serve and install gas wells. That web of roads not only has an immediate, direct effect of destroying habitat, but roads also allow the encroachment of humans to disturb the deer. Yes, the deer will tolerate it because they don’t have any choice. Absolutely, they are standing around well pads — because they have no other place to go.”

This is the first of a two-part story.