State mum on removal of predators on Roan
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is refusing to disclose the results of a first year of work removing bears and lions from part of the Roan Plateau for a study on the effects on mule deer numbers.
The agency is citing ongoing litigation and state public-records law in declining a Daily Sentinel request to disclose the results of the work, which is expected to include killing many of the animals. Critics of the controversial project say the refusal shows a lack of transparency by CPW.
“I think that the public’s data should be public, especially given the fact that these are the public’s wildlife and they’re using public money, including federal tax money, to conduct these controversial studies, when in fact their own studies are clearly indicative of what the threats to ungulate populations are. And in western Colorado clearly it’s oil and gas development and not predation,” said Wendy Keefover, carnivore protection manager with the Humane Society.
CPW has argued that research to date on deer numbers in the Piceance Basin indicates that, while oil and gas development has some impacts on deer, deer numbers remain below habitat capacity. Researchers think bears and lions may be playing a role in limiting numbers by killing fawns, and want to test that theory through the study.
The agency’s research plan includes trying to remove up to 15 cougars and 25 bears a year for three years each May and June over 500 square miles of the Roan Plateau, and seeing what happens to fawn survival rates, compared to a control area where predation removal wouldn’t occur.
CPW has said it planned to contract with the federal Wildlife Services agency to use cage and culvert traps, snares and hounds to do the work. While animals would be caught using nonlethal measures, they then would be shot and killed except in the case of families, which would be relocated outside the study area.
The state Parks and Wildlife Commission approved the study last year, along with a nine-year study in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. That study involves using sport hunting of lions, and some contract hunting, to measure impacts on deer numbers.
The projects are expected to cost about $4.5 million combined. The group WildEarth Guardians says thousands of people have submitted comments to CPW opposing the projects.
The group has sued to try to stop the work from going forward. It tried and failed to get a court injunction to stop the first summer of work on the Roan Plateau. CPW was forced to delay the start of the Upper Arkansas until next year due to factors such as ground conditions.
CPW spokesman Mike Porras pointed to the lawsuit as one reason for not disclosing the results of this year’s predator-removal work on the Roan Plateau. “In the interest of ensuring this lawsuit is adjudicated properly and fairly, we prefer not to comment or release any preliminary data regarding this research at this time,” he said by email.
But he said the primary reason to keep the information confidential is state law allowing for state institutions to not disclose data from ongoing research if releasing it would be contrary to the public interest.
“In accordance with that statute, we are not releasing any data until it has been compiled, peer reviewed and published,” he said.
Stuart Wilcox, the attorney pursuing the legal challenge of the studies for WildEarth Guardians, notes that the law CPW is invoking doesn’t mandate that it withhold the information.
“It’s discretionary. They certainly could release it, and ongoing litigation is not a legitimate concern,” he said.
Said Porras, “I realize there is some discretion involved, but we are not going to release any information at this time. We just feel that in this particular instance it is in the best interest of the research, which is ultimately what our concern is, to make sure that we do things properly.”
Wilcox said he thinks the agency just wants to do what it wants without public oversight.
He said that as of a couple of days into the start of the Piceance work, CPW reported not having yet killed any predators, but he expects they killed a number over the following two months.
“I would be astonished if they hadn’t killed a significant number of bears and mountain lions already under the plan,” he said.
He’s hoping for a ruling in the lawsuit before the Upper Arkansas work can begin, along with the second season of work on the Roan Plateau.
“We really want to get this resolved as quickly as possible and get these plans stopped before they do any more damage,” he said.
WildEarth Guardians is arguing in part that the CPW work violates Amendment 14, a state constitutional measure barring some kinds of wildlife trapping. CPW says Amendment 14 contains a scientific research exemption, and also that the amendment is meant to prevent inhumane trapping, and cages and live traps are humane. WildEarth Guardians says the methods aren’t humane if the animals end up being shot.
In a September court filing in the case, state attorneys maintained that the two studies “constitute bona fide scientific research and carry important implications for how wildlife managers understand the relationship between predator and prey in Colorado.”
They also said, “Managing and conducting research on predators is never easy and often results in considerable controversy. The people of Colorado have given the State the important responsibility to engage in management and research activities to ensure that Colorado’s wildlife are preserved, enhanced, and managed now and into the future. The State takes this responsibility seriously. That is why it employs scientists with particular expertise to research, evaluate, and manage predators and deer on behalf of the people of this State.”