Mountain lion

Mountain lion, one of two predators targeted by CPW in its study. (Photo by ArtG/Flickr)

 

If a controversial study by Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) is proceeding as planned, the increased killing of mountain lions has already started. Though CPW has gone silent on its proposal to increase the hunting of black bears and mountain lions as a way to facilitate mule deer fawn survival, the hunting of lions has been in season since November, and continues through March 31. In some areas of the state, yet another hunting season will take place from April 1-30.

CPW’s staff has declined to share any updates or related information on its $4.6 million, multi-year study, ever since WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit in January seeking to have it stopped.

If it is taking place right now, CPW’s increase in lion hunting is likely happening in the Upper Arkansas River Valley in central Colorado, one of two areas the wildlife agency is focusing on. Increased lion hunting may also be occurring in the Piceance Basin (pronounced Pee-ontz) in northwest Colorado.

Bear hunting season for the public is from September through November. But, bear hunting for the CPW study is scheduled to take place this May and June, just prior to and during the fawn birthing period, as noted in the study overview for the Piceance Basin.

“They plan to use contract hunters. They’ll pay individuals to go out with dogs and tree the cougars until the hunters can get there and shoot them,” said WildEarth Guardians Staff Attorney Stuart Wilcox. Wildlife Services, a branch of the USDA that dispatches wildlife in order to protect livestock, private property and aviation and to monitor diseases, “will come in to both areas, once hunting season is over, and will kill the remaining bears and mountain lions required to meet CPW’s goals.” 

The big business of hunting

In Colorado last year, roughly 350,000 hunters were in the backcountry and on private lands, searching for wildlife to kill. The state has hunting seasons for deer, elk, moose, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, desert bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bears, and lions, as well as more than 50 types of small game including coyotes, bobcats, birds, waterfowl, rodents, a turtle, and a snake. 

Revenues from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses increased from about $45 million, in 1990, to almost $70 million in 2015, according to CPW statistics, and comprises 78 percent of the government agency’s budget. That funding stream is being questioned by most opponents of the predator removal study who believe the agency is influenced to increase hunting to support its budget, whether that increase is appropriate for the wildlife or not. Critics also believe the agency and governing commission should be reformed, so that wildlife sustainability and biodiversity are better represented. 

The economic benefits of the state’s wildlife go way beyond the hunting license sales and related fees and include income from lodging, feeding, entertaining and gearing up hunters. All told, Colorado’s hunting-related earnings are estimated by several organizations to be at least $1 billion annually, while wildlife watching is estimated to bring in another $1 billion.

Elk are by far the most popular animal to hunt, with 223,274 people purchasing elk licenses in 2015 (the latest year for which statistics are available). Deer come in second; 73,539 hunters purchased deer licenses in 2015. However, deer hunting is not suspected as a major factor in the state’s decreased mule deer population, which has been fluctuating below previous highs of 600,000 deer before the 1980s. While CPW estimated the population at a high of 613,450 in 2006, it has since dropped back down. Its lowest point was 390,660, in 2013; in 2015, estimates were that the number of deer rose again to 435,660. In the Piceance Basin, dubbed the “mule-deer factory” for its historic wealth of animals, the population was estimated at 100,000 in the early 1980s. By 2013, that number had dropped by more than two-thirds — to 32,000 — according to a fact sheet from the National Wildlife Federation and Colorado Wildlife Federation.

The original dip in mule deer numbers, which took place about 30 years ago, has been attributed to severe winters, droughts, disease, and overpopulation impacting habitat. If those were the only factors, though, mule deer numbers would have recovered by today. 

Meanwhile, Colorado’s human population increased from 4.3 million in 2000 to 5.18 million in 2012. More people and development “contribute to a direct loss of mule deer habitat,” wrote CPW Biologist Darby Finley in a report cited by the National Wildlife Federation and Colorado Wildlife Federation.

Oil and gas development is also considered to be a culprit in habitat loss impacting deer survival, but the level of impact is debated among experts. Based on recent deer population research results, CPW made recommendations about how to better develop energy sites with the ungulates in mind — but the commission did not attribute major impacts from energy development to herd survival. Other scientists had different conclusions.

My science vs. your science

Delia Malone is 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. She believes human development, including energy development, is the cause of the declines in deer numbers.

“CPW estimates that during the height of the oil and gas boom — and it is about to boom again — as many mule deer were killed by poachers as were by hunters with licenses. If you think about those numbers, there’s an interesting coincidence: The construction of roads to drilling sites reduced previously secure habitat and made it easier for poachers to ride around on those new backroads. When there are as many poached as taken legally, there is going to be an impact on the herd.” 

Ecological theory, Malone added, suggests that the impact on habitat extends at least 50 to 100 meters on either side of that road, “rendering huge areas lost to mule deer.”

And yet, CPW researchers determined that adult deer survival, even around energy sites, was high. According to the agency’s analysis, fawn survival has been abnormally low, and fawns’ deaths have been largely due to predation with 44 percent of fawns monitored by collars being killed by predators.  

“Managers have been unable to confirm whether predation is limiting overall fawn survival or (that) fawns dying from predation are weaker, on average, and would otherwise likely have died prior to adulthood. To address the reason for lower December fawn counts in the Piceance Basin and identify potential management options, CPW proposes to continue monitoring newborn fawn survival for another three years and reduce predator densities (black bears and cougars) during the spring fawning period to evaluate this approach for increasing early fawn survival,” according to the CPW’s study overview.

During a Feb. 7 presentation in Ridgway, organized by the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, CPW Mammals Research Leader Chuck Anderson said 60 to 90 fawns have been collared each season from 2008 on, in order to monitor their health and survival, and that he did not think the collars made them more vulnerable to predation. Bear predation accounts for the largest percentage of fawn deaths (15 percent); cougars are second highest at 7.5 percent. Other animals that prey on fawns include bobcats, coyotes and eagles.

“Predation rates between undeveloped and developed areas (i.e., areas with drilling sites) are very similar. There’s relatively high predation in all areas, and relatively low starvation,” Anderson explained.

Being hit by vehicles on roads only accounted for .8 percent of fawn deaths, and toxicity studies in areas where energy development was taking place did not indicate that methane and other air pollutants are impacting fawns’ survival, he replied to an audience question.

The predator removal study was approved on Dec. 16 by the CPW Commission, comprised of 11 citizens from around the state including ranchers, farmers and representatives of the hunting and recreation industries. A letter of support for the study was submitted by Colorado Outfitters Association, Colorado Trappers & Predator Hunters Association, Colorado Youth Outdoors, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, the Mule Deer Foundation, National Shooting Sports Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Wild Sheep Foundation. All these organizations promote both hunting and conservation of wildlife.

In an email response to a request for comment on the study, Jenny Burbey of the Colorado Outfitters Association stated that the “association believes in science-based management for Colorado’s wildlife.”

He said, she said 

Mia Anstine, a guide with Wolf Creek Outfitters in Pagosa Springs who blogs about ranch life, hunting, shooting and cooking, urged her followers to write in support of the study. Anstine wrote on her blog: “These scientific studies are necessary in order to develop a balanced management program to maintain stability of mule deer populations in Colorado. Public observational evidence from sportsmen, landowners (and) ranchers have confirmed the decline in fawn survival over the past two decades. The argument that mule deer have not rebounded due to inadequate habitat or to energy development is not true.

“There is more viable habitat now for mule deer now than ever in the last three decades,” she added. “That is due to the habitat restoration done by the above mentioned entities. Sportswomen and Sportsmen of Colorado support the efforts of the CPW Northwest and Southeast Regional Offices in their scientific efforts to address the problem of fawn survival and over all mule deer recruitment.”

In an interview, Steve Boyle, the principal senior biologist at BIO-Logic, Inc., environmental consultants in Montrose, did not offer an opinion on whether he supported or opposed the study. But he said, “In my experience, CPW employs science-based wildlife management. I think they have a strong nationwide reputation (for) having a lot of excellence in terms of quality of scientific research and their willingness to use scientifically based research in application of wildlife management. In general, they do a good job.”

However, critics find many faults with the scientific bases of the predator removal study. On Feb. 16, CLAW (Colorado Legislative Animal Welfare) Caucus, which discusses policy and laws on domestic animals, livestock and wildlife, invited both sides of the issue to share their perspectives. The meeting, which took place in Denver, was co-hosted by Colorado Voters for Animals, an animal protection advocacy group.

 State Rep. Steve Lebsock, who moderated the meeting, said that according to three CSU biology professors who attended, “The study is unnecessary, lacks peer review, and the killing of predators will not benefit other wildlife, such as deer. Predators generally kill older deer or sick deer. Predators killing older and sick deer strengthen deer herds as the strongest deer survive and breed.”

Lebsock said that so far, no further action has been planned by legislators regarding the future of the study. “CPW and the CPW Commission have statutory authority to make decisions like this study. Unfortunately, this study is wrong on so many levels and is not based on science,” he added.

Any scientific study across such large areas — 6,000 square miles in the case of the Piceance Basin, and 3,000 square miles in the Upper Arkansas — is difficult, Anderson said.  “We’re trying to apply a petri dish model on a landscape scale. In that large of a reference area, (conditions) are not identical and they do change.” 

What is more, CPW admittedly lacks scientific evidence about how many bears and lions live in the study areas.

“There has been no predator research during this time period,” Anderson said. “We don’t know if bears and cougars have increased in recent years, but my anecdotal answer is yes, there is strong evidence that bears have increased in the area.”

Malone of the Sierra Club finds such uncertainty problematic: “If you are going to manage a wildlife population, you need to know how many you have, so you don’t kill beyond the point where the population plummets into oblivion.”

She also believes that removing adult lions will create uncontrolled territories and social chaos, where young lions end up killing more deer. Anderson said he saw no evidence that killing adult cougars would cause more young cougars to move in.

Malone and others also cast doubt on the significance of predation by bears, given that they are omnivores with a diet that is “90 percent vegetarian. 

“The best available science shows that predators are a critical asset to a community, predators keep ungulate populations healthy, they enhance biological diversity, and even play a role in buffering impacts of the climate,” she said. 

“We already know that predators are not the cause of low mule deer populations. They may be the proximate cause, but over time they are not the ultimate cause. There are a lot of factors that go into determining fawn survival. The biggest factor that determines deer survival, that decades of research have shown us, is habitat quality. Those fawns that have good nutrition are not the ones that are going to be selected by predators. If habitat is degraded by many causes, their condition suffers and they are more likely to be (taken) by predators.”

This is the second story of a two-part series.