Predator study to proceed after judge rejects injunction

A judge has declined to suspend Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s killing of bears and lions in a mule deer study while a lawsuit challenging the project plays out.

The ruling last week by Denver District Court Judge Robert L. McGahey Jr., means that the agency likely will be able to complete work on the first year of its three-year removal project on part of the Roan Plateau in the Piceance Basin.

Work on capturing and killing lions and bears started this month and could continue into June. CPW has contracted to have the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services remove up to 15 lions and 25 bears a year on 500 square miles of the Roan Plateau each spring for three years to see if it boosts fawn survival rates.

The agency also is planning a three-phase, nine-year study involving manipulating lion counts in the Upper Arkansas River Valley through changes in hunting quota numbers and some use of contract hunters, also to determine impacts on deer numbers.

The suit challenges both studies. But McGahey’s ruling declining to impose an injunction or restraining order is more immediately pertinent to the Piceance Basin project because the agency had to forgo carrying out lion-suppression efforts this year in the Upper Arkansas Valley due to factors such as ground conditions.

“There’s plenty of time to stop the majority of harm (if the lawsuit succeeds) but it’s a sad state of affairs this year in the Piceance,” said Bethany Cotton of WildEarth Guardians, which brought the suit.

McGahey had been scheduled to hold a hearing on the injunction request Thursday but issued the ruling two days earlier based on briefs the parties had submitted in the case. Cotton said WildEarth Guardians had told McGahey the group was fine with him issuing a ruling without a hearing because of the urgency due to the Roan Plateau work already having begun. But she said the timing of the ruling was a surprise, coming so close to the scheduled hearing.

As for the content of the ruling, Cotton said, “Injunctions and restraining orders are always fairly unlikely, so it’s not terribly surprising, but it’s certainly disappointing.”

Officials plan to use nonlethal cages and snares in the Roan work, then shoot captive animals, but relocate families. WildEarth Guardians says in its suit that the project violates Amendment 14, a state constitutional measure barring some kinds of wildlife trapping.

The agency has said in a court filing that Amendment 14 is meant to prevent inhumane trapping, and cages and live traps are humane.

Cotton scoffs at that argument, given that the animals will then be shot.

“That’s some pretty serious verbal gymnastics that they’re doing to try to get around the prohibition,” she said.

The agency said Friday about the judge’s ruling, “We are pleased with the decision and look forward to a resolution of the legal matters.”

It offered no further comment on the issue, and spokesman Mike Porras said he wasn’t able to provide an update on how the Roan removal work is going.

Opponents of the research say the science shows predator management doesn’t boost deer numbers. But agency officials have said the question is far from settled and more research is warranted to determine why fawn survival rates aren’t better in the Piceance Basin, where the agency believes the habitat can support more deer even with the oil and gas development that has occurred there.

WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity also have sued the federal Wildlife Services agency to challenge its overall carnivore-killing program in Colorado, including its involvement in the predator research.

They contend Wildlife Services has failed to analyze the impact of its works on bears, lions and other animals, and its programs result in accidental capture and deaths of other animals.


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