WildEarth Guardians Sues Colorado over Plan to Kill Black Bears, Mountain Lions

(EnviroNews Nature) — Denver, Colorado — The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department (CPW), the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (Commission) and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources are being sued by WildEarth Guardians (WEG) for their December approval of two predator-killing programs. Through the Piceance Basin Predator Management Plan and Upper Arkansas River Predator Management Plan, CPW aims to kill mountain lions (Puma concolor) and black bears (Ursus americanus) in an attempt to increase mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) populations. WEG, an environmental nonprofit, says the two initiatives were approved in opposition to Colorado legislation, the science presented to the Commission and extensive public commentary.

The Piceance Basin Predator Management Plan is a three-year strategy to kill between five and 15 mountain lions and 10 to 25 bears annually, “with higher levels possible.” The project will use “cage traps, culvert traps, foot snares, and trailing hounds for capture and a firearm will be used for euthanasia.” The killings are intended for in a 500-square-mile area west of Meeker and Rifle Colorado for which CPW has not provided site-specific bear or mountain lion population estimates.

The Upper Arkansas River Predator Management Plan is a nine-year project, which will use hunting increases to kill substantial percentages of mountain lions in a 2,370-square-mile region in south central Colorado and a neighboring 2,517-square-mile area. Three stages of mountain lion suppression are described within the plan as a “research project,” which aims to “to examine the mule deer population response to cougar suppression.” The stages will involve killing 50 percent of the mountain lions in the first area and 10 percent in the second, then 10 percent in both, then 10 percent in the first and 50 percent in the second. CPW does not have site-specific mountain lion population estimates. If CPW deems it necessary, these hunting initiatives will be followed by trapping and killing by Wildlife Services (WS), the USDA’s highly controversial federal wildlife killing program. In 2016, over 90 percent of respondents to an EnviroNews Poll said Wildlife Services’ killing programs should be abolished.

The Suit States the Killing Plans Are Unconstitutional and Unsupported by Most Coloradans

As WEG points out in a press release, the citizens of Colorado have vocally opposed the recently approved killing tactics and have voted in the past for increased regulation of predator hunting. Bear hunting season in Colorado extends from Sept. 2 to mid-November as defined by a 1992 initiative prohibiting bear hunting from March to Sept. 1. This initiative passed with a 70 percent majority. Amendment 14 to the Colorado Constitution, which passed in 1996, added increased regulations on the permitted methods and purposes of Colorado wildlife trapping and included bans on leghold traps and other body-gripping traps.

The two programs will cost over $4.5 million in Colorado and U.S. funds. Thousands of Coloradans have spoken out against the two strategies and scientists have penned letters explaining they are unnecessary and not founded in science, regarding the species’ population trends, predation history and habitat loss.

The Suit States the Killing Plans are Unscientific

In the press release, Bethany Cotton, WEG Wildlife Program Director, called on CPW to withdraw these initiatives and to “work with leading biologists to understand the existing science on the impacts of predation by carnivores to mule deer, and focus on addressing the main threats to mule deer populations including rampant fossil fuel development and habitat loss.”

The suit states, “CPW’s current goals are based on mule deer inhabiting historical habitat. That habitat includes areas that have been removed and/or degraded by development.” In an email to EnviroNews Nature, WEG Staff Attorney Stuart Wilcox said the habitat destruction arises from many sources and oil and gas development is “a huge driver of habitat loss for the species.”

Wilcox continued in his email to EnviroNews Nature:

Not only can the deer obviously not use well pads, but they also avoid large areas adjacent to well pads due to excessive noise and light concerns… Much of the most problematic habitat loss from a mule deer population-growth perspective is loss of winter range. Much of the oil and gas development in Colorado takes place in basin areas, which are also areas that mule deer prefer to winter in due to milder weather conditions. In fact, the Piceance Basin, where one of these plans is focused, is some of the most critical mule deer habitat in Colorado and the second largest natural gas basin in the entire country. A whole lot of development has already occurred there and the new increased projections of total gas reserves for the Piceance Basin is going to drive increasing development in the area in the future.

Unfortunately, these basin/valley areas are also where people want to build houses to avoid harsher winter conditions, so increasing residential development of these areas is also squeezing the mule deer out of vital habitat. In addition to these sources, there is also competition for available grazing resources from increasing elk populations and from domestic sheep and cattle.

Despite habitat loss, mule deer populations have actually been increasing statewide in recent years and Wilcox said, “if the current trend continues, CPW would meet its mule deer population goals for the state by 2020 without spending over $4.5 million to kill a bunch of mountain lions and bears.” WEG states that CPW reported in 2015 that mule deer populations were increasing in the Piceance Basin and that there had been zero incidents of bear predation and very few involving mountain lions. Wilcox said of these approaches to predator management, “not only are they indefensible from a scientific and policy standpoint on their own, but they don’t even appear to be addressing a need to change management of mule deer to increase populations.”

Black Bear Killed by Hunter

WildEarth Guardians has extensive experience holding governmental agencies accountable for unfounded lethal wildlife management practices and forcing them to stop using unscientific strategies. For example, in October 2016, after years of perseverance, WEG won a landmark settlement that put the brakes on the USDA’s expansive predator killing program Wildlife Services. Federal judges found WS was using outdated and inadequate environmental assessments (EAs) and would have to submit new updated EAs for review in order to continue its wildlife eradications in specific areas. The settlement also resulted in a moratorium on wildlife killing for all practical purposes on public lands in Nevada.

Lauren Truitt, CPW’s Statewide Public Information Officer, told EnviroNews Nature on January 23 that the agency has not yet been served the complaint and is declining to comment until it has reviewed it.

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