Proposed predator control study stirs strong opinions

Ryan Hoffman
A mule deer buck creeps along a ridge in east Rifle.
File |

RIFLE — If Tuesday night was any indication, a proposed study analyzing the impact of predators on declining mule deer populations on the Roan Plateau will face future headwinds in the court of public opinion.

Support, skepticism and disagreement were all voiced among the 40 people at an informational meeting hosted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the agency proposing the study.

The proposal, known as the Piceance Basin predator management plan, involves one strategy outlined in CPW’s West Slope Mule Deer Strategy, which was adopted in 2015 after a statewide outreach effort in 2014.

That strategy suggests a series of steps to increase the slumping mule deer population on the West Slope. It notes that populations in the White River National Forest are down almost 50 percent from peak numbers roughly 25 years ago.

The proposed Piceance Basin study involves monitoring fawn survival in two adjacent areas over three years. One of those areas, a small summer range on the Roan Plateau, would have controlled predator removal before and during the fawn birthing period in May and June.

Predators that will be removed include black bears and mountain lions, and the agency estimates the removal number to be around five to 10 for mountain lions and 10 to 15 for bears per year, although the number could be higher.

CPW will compare that data to survival rates in an uncontrolled area to the east between Meeker and Rifle.

Another informational meeting is scheduled for September in Denver, and the study ultimately has to be approved by the CPW commission, which will likely consider it in December.

While Tuesday’s meeting in Rifle was intended to be informational, some in attendance questioned the study and CPW’s overall management tactics, while others voiced their support for the agency — at one point applauding the agency officers and officials in the room.

“I want to applaud the [CPW] northwest region for what you’re doing, because you’re going to take a lot of heat when you get over to the Front Range,” said Denny Behrens of the Colorado Mule Deer Association. “But we know what needs to happen. We know we need that study. We need to know how the predators are affecting our mule deer herds … and I for one salute you all.”

His remarks drew applause from many in the room, but not everyone.

The point is that single species management does not work, said Delia Malone, a Redstone resident with the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“Philosophically and scientifically it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work practically,” she said.

Others raised issue with the means of removal.

Specialized contractors will use trailing hounds, cage traps, culvert traps and foot snares to capture the animals before shooting them. Since much of the area is private land, largely owned by oil and gas companies, and there are no spring hunting seasons, a specialized contractor, in this case Colorado Wildlife Services, is needed.

The removal tactics were enough to bring Ashley DiGrado and three friends from Grand Junction. DiGrado, who volunteers with the Humane Society, said she wanted to learn more.

“We were concerned with methods that the organization is using to trap and kill predators,” she said, adding that she also wanted to know who was funding the study.

After learning that the funding will come through hunting license revenues and likely some federal sources, DiGrado said she was still skeptical, since much of the public input to form the larger West Slope Mule Deer Strategy came from sportsmen.

“It’s the fact that all these sportsmen are behind this plan in order for them to have more deer to hunt when the hunting season comes because they’re objective number of deer has been down. So then they turn around on the predators,” DiGrado said.

“The motive was clear for us,” added Sabrina Wiseman, also from Grand Junction.

Both added that the meeting was informative and it was interesting to hear other points of view.

Those other points of view were not in short supply.

“I think it is a good move in the right direction,” said Robert Winn, a Rifle resident who has hunted in the Piceance Creek area his entire life. “Despite what anti-hunters perceive, there is a need for population control. I don’t care what science you look at, what research you look at, if you leave a large predator population unchecked in today’s world it’s going to cause negative consequences on other animals. Man has so altered the environment that there is no natural left, there’s no true wilderness left in the lower 48 [states], so we have to manage all wildlife.”

Winn chalked up the issue to emotion coming from both sides.

That emotion will likely be amplified at the meeting in Denver.

“There will be strong emotions at the meeting in Denver on both sides,” Ron Velarde, CPW northwest regional manager. “[It is a] very emotional issue. When you speak about lions, bears and wolves, it’s very emotional.”

Overall, the participation in Rifle was encouraging, he added. But despite understanding the strong opinions on both sides of the issue, that was not the purpose of Tuesday’s meeting.

“The purpose of this meeting was … to say, ‘This is the type of research we’re planning on doing, it’s based on science, and we’re not killing every single lion and bear in the state of Colorado,’” Velarde said. “It’s in one specific area for three years to find out can we increase the fawn count. That’s really what it’s all about.”

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