Colorado Parks and Wildlife targets predators

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is proposing a study whereby they will kill mountain lion (cougars) and bears in the northwest portion of the state to see if it can help boost mule deer populations.

It must be noted that mule deer have been on the decline around the West for decades, and no one has really been able to pin point the reasons. Colorado’s highest population estimate occurred in 1983, when deer numbers reached an estimated 625,000 and today the population is under 400,000.

In the case of northwest Colorado, some suggest that on-going oil and gas development could be the cause in the recent deer decline.  In 1989, there were 5,000 oil and gas wells in the state, and by 2014, the number had risen to 32,000.

Each of those wells requires a pad, and access roads, plus power lines, pipelines and other industrial support. All of this fragmenting mule deer habitat, blocking migration corridors, as well as creating human activity in what were formerly remote lands.

Research in other states like Wyoming have concluded that energy development does indeed harm mule deer.

Add in livestock grazing on public lands—especially in drought years when cattle and sheep can graze all forbs, grasses, and many shrubs to the ground– and you have an additional stress on mule deer.

Other factors affecting the sagebrush sea where mule deer reside such as the record droughts which can reduce the nutritional quality of forage as well as the spread of cheatgrass facilitated both by livestock grazing and on-going energy development. Cheatgrass can increases the fire frequency in sage brush areas leading to excessive losses of sagebrush, an important winter food for deer.

Past high mule deer numbers, encouraged by state wildlife agencies, may also be a factor in today’s decline. The heyday for mule deer meant some important forage species were heavily grazed/browsed to the point where the habitat’s ability to support mule deer has declined. In some cases, it has not recovered, especially when drought conditions preclude good vegetation growth.

Finally, to add insult to injury, in some parts of Colorado, rural housing tracts are gobbling up winter range and increasing human activity in critical mule deer habitat.

All of these combined means you have a perfect storm for mule deer decline.

Indeed, one would have to wonder mule deer haven’t declined given these factors.

Yet predators are being targeted as the culprit. This scapegoating of predators has gone on for more than a hundred years, and what study after study has already previously concluded is that predators are seldom the ultimate factor in ungulate declines.

For instance, if habitat quality declines say from drought, then mule deer fawn may be born under-weight or have less security or simply are displaced from traditional winter range and therefore more vulnerable to predators. But ultimately it is drought, cheatgrass, cows, or energy development which are the ultimate factor that creates predator vulnerability.

Predators may be the proximate cause of ungulate decline in some places for a short time, but keep in mind that predators are ultimately determined by the availability of prey. If mule deer decline, and there are few alternatives, predator numbers will fall in line with their food resources.

Some may wonder why a state wildlife agency like the Colorado Parks and Wildlife is targeting predators when all these other factors are involved. The obvious answer is that they are afraid to attack the energy, livestock and housing industries, and their political supporters like rural county commissioners.

But why is a decline in mule deer even an issue? Mule deer in Colorado are by no means endangered. There are hundreds of thousands of them. The issue is that the numbers have fallen below “objectives’. “Objectives“ is a code word for desired production. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife has set a target for mule deer it believes can be sustained, and still hunted. If the population falls too low, the Department will have no choice but to cut hunting seasons or make other adjustments that will be unpopular with hunters.

The problem is that all state wildlife agencies depend on the sale of hunting tags and licenses to fund their bureaucracies. Thus, these agencies are not going to “bite the hand that feeds them.”  Even if there is the perception that predators are responsible for mule deer declines, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife will develop its management strategy in part based upon these perceptions.

If Colorado Parks and Wildlife sincerely cared about the future of mule deer, not just the future of its bureaucracy, it would be far more aggressive in going after the factors that are causing the long-term decline in mule deer habitat quality. Those factors are energy development, livestock grazing, and rural housing sprawl

As a state agency fearful of attacking and antagonizing any major industries, the Colorado Parks and Wildflie picks on the one thing that does not have a major lobby and political influence—predators. Sadly, this is the same situation throughout the country.

In the end, this strategy is going to lead to the demise of the state wildlife agencies themselves because even if you remove predators temporarily from the picture, the habitat qualify is continuing to decline and so will deer numbers. If these agencies were interested in preserving mule deer, much less even their weak-kneed bureaucracies, they would be outspoken in their condemnation of the industries that are the real reasons for mule deer declines everywhere.






  1. Kirk C Robinson Avatar
    Kirk C Robinson

    You hit the nail squarely on the head, repeatedly, George. Thanks.

  2. kneat63 Avatar

    I worked as a big game program manager for a southwestern state wildlife agency. This is he same politically-motivated “experiment” that a half dozen other western states have conducted over the past two decades. And always the same results: “In conclusion, benefits of predator removal appear to be marginal and short term in southeastern Idaho and likely will not appreciably change long-term dynamics of mule deer populations in the intermountain west”. (Hurley et al., Demographic response of mule deer to experimental reduction of coyotes and mountain lions in southeastern Idaho, Wildlife Monographs 178, 1–33, 2011.

    It’s the habitat, stupid!

  3. Patricia Herman Avatar

    I was wondering how you feel about the recent killing of first the wedge wolf pack and now the profanity peak pack?
    Seems to me that the Diamond bar ranch has a conflict of interest given one of its owners is the president on the Washington Cattlemens board!!
    They say they have tried Non-lethal measures but on their Facebook page they laugh about those of us who are trying to save wolves,it’s a joke to them!! They just want all the wolves dead period and all the land !!
    I was curious how you feel about this.
    Thank you for your time..
    Patricia Herman

  4. patrick Avatar

    I appreciate the update but this message sill have little if any affect. What would be great is to clearly state what, specifically, we can do to help save the predators.

    Again very clear, specific instructions on how we can protect predators is what, in my opinion, would make a difference.

    1. Kirk C Robinson Avatar
      Kirk C Robinson

      I would say that the way to save predators, besides saving predator habitat, is to conform the management agencies – both state and federal. But in order to be able to do that, you need to know what won’t work. Facts and arguments alone, won’t work. This is because the root of the problem isn’t ignorance of the facts. It’s the political realities described by George. So if you want to save wildlife, this is worth knowing. Now you just need to learn ways of getting involved and becoming active on the issues. That’s up to you.

      1. Kirk C Robinson Avatar
        Kirk C Robinson

        Of course, I meant ‘reform’ not ‘conform’.

  5. Debra Taylor Avatar
    Debra Taylor

    George makes sense to me! Let me add, that the few times my husband I wanted to explore and stay over within some parks and forests, we chose not to go because it was another hunting season!
    Scenery is beautiful, but it isn’t nature without seeing some wildlife!
    Please cut back on the length of the individual hunting seasons! Ask Congress for more money for improved campgrounds. Built it, we will come!

  6. Connie A. Reppe Avatar
    Connie A. Reppe

    Mr. Wuerthner, As of present day the U.S. Corps of Engineers conducted an environmental assessment and issued a permit to begin trenching a oil pipeline that will run underground, crossing the waters the of the Missouri River. The Lakota Nation, remains strong in standing a resistance to block development of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The state government has expected demands and, a convoy of local enforcement, is stand-offish. The oil pipelines will be a long lifetime, argument. Inpart of environmental pollution, there is by the name of a man, Mr. Joe Hutto a naturalist, writer, author and artist. Mr.Hutto is filmed over a span of seven years living amongst a herd of mule deer. The PBS nature documentary is catalogued. Mr. Hutto, studied and emphasized that at high altitudes the atmosphere has a higher rate of pollution and the effect’s is acid rain, as the reason for high mortality rates, and biochemistry deficiency’s of Rocky Mt.Bighorns,and first year’s offspring. In these modern times of big business.

  7. Mike Todd Avatar
    Mike Todd

    This is the classic knee-jerk reaction of many state wildlife agencies to placate the predator haters (hunters and legislators). Instead of acknowledging or recognizing the negative impacts to wildlife populations by human activities, they find a convenient scapegoat (predators) to divert the public’s attention from the real issue – the loss of habitat quality and quantity.

    Some years ago, Idaho conducted an extensive coyote removal campaign to try and bolster mule deer populations. (See Hurley, noted above). The results indicated that when climate changes altered habitat for rodents or rabbits, and their populations declined, the coyotes shifted their predation efforts to mule deer fawns. No amount of coyote control, using various methods, made any significant difference in allowing mule deer herds to increase, as their habitat had declined as well.

    It’s the age-old human panacea…kill more predators! Don’t bother to look at, or assess, or calculate the ultimate human-caused problems for wildlife. That would entail addressing/confronting the real issues and ignoring oil and gas exploration, housing increases, roadways, power transmission lines, etc. Most state agencies do not have the desire to go there, nor the political ability to challege these interests, even if their enabling legislation mandates they do so. Instead let’s pick on the most obvious culprit – the predators, which are only a symptom of a much greater problem. Predators are merely one of many proximate factors that can affect wild populations. However too many people view them as competition, therefore they should be eliminated.

    Wholesale assaults on predators, as performed by “Wildlife Services” (using public dollars on public lands to placate a private industry (Western livestock grazing) only continue to divert attention from the real problem – humans – and our destruction of what wildlife needs for survival, quality habitat.

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I hope they can be sued? How many times must these states repeat the same ‘experiments’ and get the same result, continually wasting the taxpayers’ money?

  9. Barbara Slott Avatar
    Barbara Slott

    Preaching to the choir here. The challenge is to get the word heard by the hunting public and legislators.

  10. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    This author uses what I call a bait and hook mentality and this article is no exception. If you look into Colorado Parks and Wildlife strategy you will see the agency is addressing SEVEN strategic strategies of which energy development, habitat loss, transportation, human encroachment and yes predator control are addressed.

    While we each need to conserve energy, the fact is the greatest country on earth runs on energy, but apparently most of you want to ride horses and buggies and heat with wood (oh that would mean killing trees!). Let’s see we must remove dams, not drill for oil and gas, leave coal in the ground, and tear down wind turbines and solar plants. Just curious, how do you all heat and light your homes, get from point A to point B, use your computer, cook your meals, you get the idea!

    Come on folks, do a little “homework” and consider checking out the facts before you comment. While state wildlife agencies are mainly funded by hunting and fishing licenses, these agencies are made up of professional biologists who CARE about the resources they manage and do not come to decisions without looking at all of the available information.

    I will NEVER fall for this authors bait until I look into the facts and I hope you do too.

    1. Theo Chu Avatar
      Theo Chu

      Gary Hubbard – In response to your snarky comments in your second paragraph no one is suggesting those things at all. We simply recognize there is no reason to graze cows on every acre of public land deer habitat for fear we will starve if we don’t have our t-bone steaks. Nor do we need to dam every salmon stream or cut down every tree to avoid freezing to death in the dark as you infer.
      We don’t need 70-80mph speed limits through deer migrations routes to get to our destinations on time – why not 45 mph through those short stretches. And we don’t need to cover endangered tortoise habitat with solar panels when we could do the same in WalMart parking lots while providing parking shade at the same time. Get the idea?

      Having spent 30 years as a wildlife biologist in a state agency I agree that most professional biologists care deeply about the resources they manage. I say most because a fair number are very much maximum harvest anti-predator oriented as well. But you are naive if you believe these agencies don’t come under huge political pressure to use predators in lieu of cows, subdivisions, logging, etc. as scapegoats for declining prey species populations. I read throught the Colo. link you provided and having been through many of the same public process excercises described, I know that there is always a large segment of the hunting public that wants to blame predators for all the world’s ills even if the evidence shows otherwise. It is a solution that does not require any sacrifice on their part, similar to the list of things you believe the other side is unwilling to sacrifice, heat and light, etc. Public agencies must respond to those stakeholders regardless how misinformed they may be. So Colo. will be forced to waste money and time doing redundant predator studies while short changing investigations of other possible causes. I understand from experience that even if all the surrounding states have documented that predation is not the problem, people will still demand that studies be done in their state or even their county before they will believe the results, and some still won’t. The decline in mule deer throughout the west has corresponded in many cases with a tremendous increase in elk and I’m glad Colo will look into that possible conflict. But even if that is documented to be the real cause behind the deer decline, I guarantee there will be many people who will still claim that the solution will be to kill even more predators.

      1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
        Mareks Vilkins

        + 1 Theo Chu

    2. Kirk C Robinson Avatar
      Kirk C Robinson

      So is your point that the CP&W plan is a good one, or just that George hasn’t shown that it is a bad one?

    3. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      While we each need to conserve energy, the fact is the greatest country on earth runs on energy, but apparently most of you want to ride horses and buggies and heat with wood

      an average American emits twice the CO2 as the average European or Japanese. Cutting US emissions by half without sacrificing ‘standard of living’ is possible.

      someone already had done his homework and provides alternatives (based on numbers not adjectives)

      “Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air” is available free for download and within two years it had sold 40 000 copies and been downloaded nearly half a million times.

  11. rork Avatar

    “The problem is that all state wildlife agencies depend on the sale of hunting tags and licenses to fund their bureaucracies.”
    True to a certain degree, but in MI, it’s more about the economic impacts I think. There’s political pressure as a result. Deer hunting is about billions of dollars, not millions.

    Oh, here’s a example article I saw earlier in the day. See how many falsehoods you can spot – I only pointed out one or two, but there are many more.

  12. Lisa LeBlanc Avatar
    Lisa LeBlanc

    Nevada Department of Wildlife conducted a similar ‘study’, an eight-year long killing spree that took 300 cougar (average age: 3) in an effort to increase mule deer and white tail.
    About a year before completion, the ‘study’ was suspended as the deer species had shown, not only no increase in populations, but a continued decline.
    The cause for the decline was found to be…the drought.
    Really? Yes. Really.
    These agencies operate as if our wild spaces are nothing more than vast zoos, where the predators are expected to understand their rules. And virtually without exception, when an agency steps in to ‘manage’ a particular ‘problem’ they end up scrambling for years to fix the damage their solutions have caused.
    Hard to understand the mind set of a group of people whose first, best course of action is always the lethal one.

  13. anthony canales Avatar
    anthony canales

    Given that increased populations of coyotes are a result of anthropogenic food subsidization from urban and suburban areas, it is hard to understand why management of excess coyote populations cannot be part of the solution.

  14. Logan Avatar

    I really wish that western legislatures would recognize the value of the wild game populations. The hunting revenue and wildlife viewing opportunities bring money to the state. It’s a renewable resource that should be protected.

    I would like to see all winter ranges protected via legislation against any permanent development.

  15. Brenna Avatar

    Thank you Mr. Wuerthner for illuminating the real problem – our Fish & Wildlife Agencies’ main interest in conserving their funding stream (hunting licenses) to the detriment of everything else and to heck with our mountain lions, bears & other predators. It’s a complete travesty & more people need to wake up to what is really happening with our wildlife.

  16. rork Avatar
    rork reviews some of the things they are doing besides wanting to reduce predators, and hints that they may have damaged their habitat, by having too many deer for too long. Experts in MI usually point to habitat degradation as the thing we need to work on if we want higher deer densities.

  17. Paul Preston Avatar
    Paul Preston

    Who can I contact in order to express myconcerns to a larger segment of the population?

  18. Carolyn Boller Avatar
    Carolyn Boller

    It doesn’t take an idiot to figure out that it’s not the Mountain Lions or the Bears that are reducing the mule deer populations–it’s the intrusion of human beings by drilling, building, on the wildlife populations. Perhaps before killing wildlife, we should consider stopping all this invasion of their habitat. It’s a really stupid idea…


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner