Velarde: Public input, buy-in integral to deer strategy
MEEKER — In the past, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have been doing much of the talking when it comes to how to manage the state’s mule deer population.
Now, it’s going to make a point to listen, Ron Velarde, CPW’s co-manager for the Northwest Region, indicated this week in a meeting in Meeker, a community deeply concerned about the decline in mule deer numbers.
A handful of agency officials met with area residents to provide updates on the latest area mule deer research, habitat improvement projects and related undertakings. But all that was mere prelude what Velarde rose to say.
“I’ve been thinking about this deer issue for a long time,” he began.
He said he has talked at length to staff about the problem.
“That’s why we’re doing research and we’re doing management and we’re doing habitat work,” he said.
But ultimately he talked to CPW Director Rick Cables, and they agreed it was time to pursue a different strategy than in the past.
The agency plans to reach out across western Colorado to ask the public what they think are the issues with mule deer populations and what they think should be done to address the problem.
Staff members then will go to the Parks and Wildlife Commission to work on developing a strategy that the public “has bought into,” Velarde said.
“In the past it’s been pretty much (do) what we want” about the problem, he said.
Now, the agency is focused on what issues the public thinks are important, such as predator or disease control, habitat management, research, or maybe something else, he said.
“It’s vitally important to me that I don’t want any sideboards when we go to the public and say what are the issues,” Velarde said, adding that the process will have no predetermined outcome.
Velarde was addressing a community where there has been frustration with the agency’s approach to date.
The Piceance Basin is home to the state’s largest migratory mule deer herd, and the hunting tradition has deep roots in a place also heavily reliant on the activity economically.
However, CPW now estimates the mule deer population in the 4,000-square-mile area surrounding Meeker to be 45,000 to 50,000, compared to as many as 85,000 in the early 2000s.
Si Woodruff, Rio Blanco County’s sheriff, told agency officials this week that the agency once known as the Division of Wildlife “should have known 20 years ago the deer were declining.”
“The Division of Wildlife denied what the public told them, that they were declining. Now we have a catastrophe,” he said.
Velarde said Woodruff raised legitimate concerns. He added, “Twenty years ago I didn’t have the authority or the support to do what we’re doing now.”
The agency’s local research has involved evaluating everything from weather, to habitat, to oil and gas development, to predators as factors affecting deer numbers, and also assessing the effectiveness of various habitat improvement projects.
Some of the research is focusing on newborn deer and older fawns to track survival rates and causes of death.
As at a meeting on the subject two years ago in Meeker, officials this week heard calls to focus more on predator control. Velarde said that while he thinks no single approach will solve the problem, he’s interested in such comments.
Agency officials also noted they have increased licenses for bear hunting in the state.
Wynn Condict, who owns a ranch near Meeker, credited the agency for its research focus and for having an open-minded approach going forward. He said Wyoming has refused to address anything but habitat.
“As a result of that they’ve lost a lot of the cooperation of the landowners” and hunters, he said.