Predator reduction plan hits resistance

Second lawsuit filed in proposal

Conservation groups have sued a federal agency in connection with a Colorado Parks and Wildlife plan to reduce bear and lion numbers to study the effect on mule deer, after one of the groups previously sued CPW over the matter.

WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity have brought the new action against Wildlife Services, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They’re challenging the agency’s overall carnivore-killing program in Colorado, including its involvement in the CPW project to kill lions and black bears on the Roan Plateau in northwest Colorado’s Piceance Basin, and lions in the upper Arkansas River Valley, for the research purposes.

The action comes as CPW hopes to begin reducing bears and lions in the Roan project on May 1. The agency opposes a request in WildEarth Guardians’ state lawsuit for a preliminary injunction that would keep that work from going forward while the case is more fully litigated.

CPW has been studying factors affecting deer numbers in the Piceance Basin. It says its new Piceance project is intended to determine if predation is limiting fawn survival rates in spring and summer. It plans to have Wildlife Services remove five to 10 lions annually there over the next three years, and 10 to 25 bears a year over the same period.

Its upper Arkansas River study involves three, three-year phases, and involves a mix of increasing and decreasing lion hunting over those phases in two different areas through manipulations of hunting quota numbers and some use of contract hunters. CPW says the goal is simply to change the timing of lion removal for research purposes, and the total number killed over nine years won’t likely exceed what otherwise would be expected.

The state wildlife commission approved the controversial studies in December, and the state expects to spend $4.5 million altogether on them in coming years. Some scientists question the need for more study on the issue of how predator numbers affect mule deer, but CPW says past research is far from conclusive. Some sportsmen support the new research, but thousands of people submitted comments opposing it.

Wildlife Services is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that carries out lethal and nonlethal predator management to protect livestock, crops, agricultural lands, property, human safety and natural resources. The suit says Wildlife Services conducted an environmental assessment last year for its program in Colorado, but that review was inadequate under federal law and an environmental impact statement should be prepared.

The suit says the agency has failed to analyze the impacts of its work on bears, lions and other animals, and its programs result in accidental capture of eagles, lynx and other animals, with hundreds of nontarget species being killed in Colorado.

The suit says the agency plans to use predator management to try to boost deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, which “will have uncertain effects,” and science shows is not effective.

“The best available science reveals predator damage management is not effective at increasing ungulate species’ populations in Colorado,” the groups say in their suit.

They say habitat loss, including from oil and gas development, is the driving cause of mule deer declines in past years. They also say that deer numbers have been rising in the state since 2013.

“I’m outraged that Colorado plans to kill bears and mountain lions to boost deer populations for hunters,” Collette Adkins, a biologist and attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release. “The state relies on outdated and unscientific thinking that disregards the importance of predators. The scientific analysis that our lawsuit seeks would show that Colorado’s predator-killing program is ecologically harmful, as well as ineffective and cruel.”

R. Andre Bell, a spokesperson for the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, of which Wildlife Services is a part, said APHIS doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

CPW has plenty to say about the issue in a court filing responding to WildEarth Guardians’ request for a preliminary injunction in its suit against that agency.

Through its attorneys, CPW says the suit’s argument that it instead should be focusing on things such as habitat “misses the point.”

“The State certainly recognizes the importance of habitat, but also recognizes that other factors, such as predation, can also be important and need to be better understood so they can be incorporated into wildlife actions,” it says in its response.

The agency has been studying oil and gas impacts on deer habitat in the Piceance Basin, but decided to look into the predator issue after finding that deer numbers weren’t improving even though their numbers are believed to be below habitat capacity.

It says the Upper Arkansas study began in December, but due to factors including ground conditions the agency won’t suppress lion numbers where it had planned to do so this year. However, it says reducing predator numbers starting May 1 for the Piceance project is critical to the study’s goal of protecting newborn fawns, and any delay “will effectively set the study back an entire year.”

CPW says it already has incurred nearly $13,000 in tracking expenses for the research, has contracted to spend $50,000 for Wildlife Services’ work for this year alone, and has proceeded with hiring temporary employees and with on-the-ground preparations for both studies.

The suit against CPW says Amendment 14, a state constitutional measure barring some kinds of wildlife trapping, makes no exception for killing trapped animals when scientific research is being conducted.

CPW says the studies will involve some use of nonlethal cages and snares. On the Roan Plateau, officials will then shoot captive animals, except for families, which they will relocate. CPW says Amendment 14 targets inhumane trapping, and cages and lives traps are humane. It says the amendment also makes a scientific exception for use of nonlethal snares for scientific research.


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