A federal program hit pause this week on its involvement in Colorado predator-killing plans.
Wildlife Services, a United States Department of Agriculture program, was tasked with killing Colorado mountain lions and black bears as part of two Colorado Parks and Wildlife plans.
But conservationist groups sued over the federal government’s involvement in state plans, and it’s unclear whether CPW can continue to kill predators without Wildlife Services help.
In a legal agreement with the conservationist groups, which was made public on Monday, Wildlife Services agreed to conduct a new environmental analysis of the plans by Aug. 1, 2018, and not kill any bears or mountain lions in the meantime.
The predator control plans are meant to boost dwindling mule deer population in the Piceance Basin and Upper Arkansas River areas.
CPW and Wildlife Services began trapping and killing predators this year in a 500-square-mile area west of Rifle and a 2,370-square-mile area in south-central Colorado. CPW hasn’t shared how many animals have been killed.
The Piceance Basin plan allows wildlife crews to capture up to 15 mountain lions and 25 black bears annually for three years using cage traps, culvert traps, foot snares and hunting dogs, then shoot them, according to CPW documents. The Upper Arkansas plan allows crews to trap and kill an unspecified number of mountain lions over a nine-year period.
CPW spokeswoman Lauren Truitt declined to comment on whether killing will continue without federal involvement, saying CPW hasn’t reviewed statements about the lawsuit. Wildlife Services representatives didn’t return a phone call from the Coloradoan requesting clarification, and Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center said he’s unsure whether killing will continue.
Wildlife Services’ new environmental analysis will consider environmental impacts of the predator control plans and their alternatives, Bishop said.
“This agreement represents a sign of good faith moving forward to do the right thing when it comes to Colorado’s wildlife and ecosystems,” he said in a statement. “It’s a big swing to go from deciding to ignore the best available science to halting potentially harmful wildlife killing while improving the science.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including the Western Environmental Law Center, WildEarth Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity, argue predators aren’t to blame for the dwindling mule deer population in Colorado. They point instead to habitat infringement by oil and gas development.
But CPW research indicates that predation, not oil and gas development, is the major cause of shrinking mule deer population in the two predator control plan areas, officials previously told the Coloradoan.
The state’s mule deer population currently sits at about 80 percent of wildlife managers’ desired population of 560,000.
Wildlife Services has also agreed not to use or fund the use of M-44 sodium cyanide capsules — so-called “cyanide bombs” — on public lands in Colorado. The conservationist groups alleged earlier this year that the traps, meant to protect livestock from predators, kill wildlife and pets indiscriminately, the Associated Press reported.
CPW and U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswomen told the Associated Press the traps haven’t been used on public lands in decades.