GARFIELD COUNTY, Colo. - Whether it’s tourism or recreation, many animals play a key role in helping define Colorado’s outdoors. However, one of the states most popular animals has seen a drop in population numbers over the years, which concerns Colorado Parks & Wildlife.
“Across the west and in Colorado, particularly on our Western Slope, Mule Deer have been in decline for a considerable period of time,” said Brad Petch, Wildlife Biologist for CPW.
CPW estimates the current mule deer population is just under 450,000 when their statewide objective is 560,000.
“Mule deer are one of those species that have intense ecological value,” said Petch.
Petch says the decline in mule deer can impact a variety of things including hunters across the state.
“Mule deer are one of the most highly sought after animals for sport hunting,” said Petch.
CPW has seen a decline in deer hunting licenses, from 110,157 in 2007, to 87,047 in 2016. Due to that, less licenses means less revenue to fund a variety of conservation efforts.
“The fee’s that hunters bring to the table are at the bed rock of everything that we do, to manage, deer, elk, and moose and the other species that might not be hunted,” said Petch.
However, CPW says it isn’t about money, it’s about fixing the decline. So working with the public, CPW developed the West Slope Mule Deer strategy that has listed seven different priorities that can address the decline including things like land development.
“Human population is increasing, were encroaching on their habitat,” said Stephanie Matlock, biology instructor at Colorado Mesa University. She believes habitat issues are a main reason for the decline, centered around a key economic driver.
“Oil any gas, you can have let’s say 10 well pads, and it’s not going to affect them, but if you double that to 20 or 30 or 40 now you’re starting to increase human activity, that’s going to decline habitat,” said Matlock.
According to the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, there are more 54,000 active oil gas wells in the state, with more than 11,000 alone in Garfield County.
While oil and gas development, as well as other factors like vehicle collisions, disease, and dwindling winter range are on CPW’s radar, one that isn’t is over hunting.
“We’re not seeing the increase in deer that we would expect to see if hunting had been the issue that drove them downward,” said Petch.
One area of concern for deer population is in the Piceance Basin, located in Garfield County, which is a place of ongoing research by CPW. Agency researchers believe predators are partly to blame for the population concerns in that area.
“A substantial number of fawns taken by large predators, especially bears to a lesser extent lions in that area during the early spring months,” said Petch.
So CPW started a three year predator reduction study where 5 - 10 mountain lions and 10 - 25 black bears will be killed annually in the Roan Plateau, adjacent to the Piceance Basin. The study will measure how reduced predator activity impacts newborn fawns. While CPW stands behind the study, others question it because of past history.
“These studies have been done over and over, it’s not like it’s a new idea,” said Matlock.
A previous study in Idaho where predators such as coyotes and mountain lions were killed to help the mule deer population determined that the “annual removal of coyotes was not an effective method to increase mule deer.” Also, mountain lion removal “didn’t demonstrate significant changes in population trend.”
CPW acknowledged the previous studies, but say that since the studies took place in different locations rather than the Piceance Basin, there are many different factors to consider. They say a study done in Idaho will be different that one done in Colorado.
However, Matlock referred to that study, and thinks it holds merit to the situation. “I am concerned that the biologist that are doing this study have not done enough research about that or there is political pressure and they are not behaving in a purely biological way,” said Matlock.
Other people have questioned the study as well, including a group called WildEarth Guardians, who filed a lawsuit against CPW over it.
“They are looking for any other scapegoat they can find that they can try to point the finger at for reduced populations,” said Bethany Cotton of WildEarth Guardians.
A district judge in Denver dismissed their motion for an injunction and temporary restraining ordered last week, but WildEarth Guardians say they will continue to fight the study, as they remain concerned with the long term effects, as does Matlock.
“Short term you will see a increase in mule deer population by removing predators but it’s short term and if there habitat problems or human encroachment problems it’s not going to be a long term fix,” said Matlock.
CPW isn’t suggesting that the removal of predators is the solution to increasing the population to their ultimate goal, but they hope with this Mule Deer Strategy, they hope to start to bring those numbers back up.