Monthly Archives: August 2004

DOW looks at mountain lion study

Russell Smyth
Montrose Daily Press

MONTROSE – Colorado Division of Wildlife officials discussed a proposal Monday night to conduct the state’s most extensive mountain lion study to date.

The proposed 10-year study would improve the Division of Wildlife’s ability to manage hunting based on sound scientific information, increase the DOW’s understanding of lions’ habitat needs, create a better picture of the predator’s ecological relationship to prey species such as mule deer and study lion-human interactions, said Ken Logan, a DOW carnivore researcher based in Montrose.

“The main objective is to get some reliable scientific information on lions,” Logan told the sparsely attended public meeting at the Delta-Montrose Electric Association’s conference room.

The Colorado Wildlife Commission, which sets policies for the DOW, is slated to consider the proposal during the wildlife commissioners’ Sept. 9-10 meeting in Durango, Logan said.

DOW officials propose to conduct the lion study in the southern parts of Game Management Units 61 and 62, which generally extend west from Montrose and cover the southern part of the Uncompahgre Plateau, according to the Draft Mountain Lion Data Analysis Unit L-22 Management Plan. The proposed study, which would cover more than 900 square miles, also would include about 60 square miles of Game Management Unit 70 in Data Analysis L-23 around Norwood, Nucla and Naturita.

The study proposes to close all mountain lion hunting and pursuit from Nov. 11, 2004, to March 31, 2009, in the research area, according to the draft management plan. Additionally, the DOW would close all of Game Management Units 61 and 62 to the sport harvest of collared or ear-tagged lions from the study. Beginning in 2010, the DOW would allow a liberal lion harvest.

“What we are asking the commission for is permission to close lion hunting for five years so the population can increase,” Logan told the 15 people other than DOW employees who attended Monday night’s meeting. “Any lions in the study area would be protected. Tagged lions in the buffer area would be protected. Then in years six through 10 hunters would come back in and take the population down.”

Shan Foster, a lion hunter who lives in the proposed study area, asked Logan what the study would provide that the DOW does not know from previous research.

The type of study the DOW is proposing has not been conducted anywhere else, Logan said. The research would provide the DOW with techniques that wildlife officials could use to estimate lion populations in different areas of Colorado and understand how hunting management practices affect those populations.

“It’s going to be different in the sense that for the first time we are going to see if we can invent the wheel,” Logan said.

The study will take away lion hunters’ ability to pursue the big cats in the research area, Foster said.

“I’ve hunted lions for about five years with hounds, and I don’t understand why you’re taking those rights away,” he said.

Logan said 80 percent of the guides and hunters he has spoken to support the research.

Hunters could lose their right to pursue lions in all of Colorado if the DOW does not conduct the research, said Bruce Watkins, senior terrestrial biologist for the DOW’s Southwest Region.

The Boulder-based environmental group Sinapu has told DOW officials it will file a state ballot initiative on lion hunting if the wildlife agency fails to provide better scientific information about lions, Watkins said. Sinapu’s action prompted the DOW to propose the lion study.

“The writing is on the wall from groups like Sinapu,” Watkins said. “Unless we can base our (hunting management) on more scientific information – if we can’t do that, Sinapu has indicated they are going to shut down lion hunting in the state of Colorado.”

Dick Steele, a Delta-area veterinarian and sportsman’s advocate, worried that increasing lion populations during the study’s first five years would hurt the Uncompahgre Plateau’s mule deer population.

Declining mule deer populations have concerned wildlife managers in Colorado and other Western states, and the DOW has conducted some of its most extensive deer research on the Uncompahgre Plateau. The DOW also limited deer hunting beginning in 1999 – a decision that many hunters supported.

“We’ve fought long and hard to bring our deer population back, and we’re a little concerned,” Steele said.

The impact lions have on the deer population concerns many people, Watkins said.

“A lot of people assume the lion population limits the deer population on the Uncompahgre Plateau,” he said.

DOW researchers have radio-collared and tracked more than 1,200 mule deer does and fawns on the Uncompahgre Plateau since 1997, Watkins said.

“Overall what these studies show is only 3 to 4 percent of these animals are killed by lions,” he said. “We feel that lions are not limiting the deer population on the Uncompahgre Plateau.”

Although the study will not allow hunting during the first five years, it will not prevent wildlife officers from killing lions that prey on livestock, according to the draft management plan. Officials will manage any lion from the study that is preying on livestock on a case-by-case basis.

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Coyote kills becoming controversial

by Cliff Thompson
Vail Daily

EAGLE COUNTY – “My guess is we probably don’t have any more today than 30 years ago,” said Bill Andelt, a Colorado State University ecology professor. “In the 1940s and ’50s the use of toxicants reduced their numbers.”

Andelt said aerial gunning is a particularly effective tool because it can target specific breeding pairs. It is used mostly in mid to late winter when coyotes are easy to spot against the snow.

“Those animals near the flock are territorial animals and it’s usually those that cause the damage,” he said.

Andelt, who has studied coyotes and predation since 1985, said it will take a variety of lethal and non-lethal methods to prevent livestock losses to predators.

Wendy Keefover Ring of Sinapu, an organization seeking to restore native carnivores to the Rockies, said livestock producers should try new methods.

Mixing cattle and sheep, using burrows and llamas – which ward off predators such as coyotes – and new types of fencing can be effective, she said.

Livestock producers should also take care to remove the carcasses of animals that have died naturally so they don’t attract more predators who could then become habituated to preying on domestic livestock, she said. Many already do that, and still suffer losses to predators, she said.

Sheep and lambs are most vulnerable during lambing season in late spring, which is also when most predators have young and an increased demand for food. She said that predation is responsible for 4 percent of all livestock deaths.

“We’ve been trying to kill coyotes for 150 years using guns and poison,” Ring said. “Terminal control doesn’t work. We have to think outside the box.”

Philosophical middle ground?

EAGLE COUNTY – Early last spring when residents in the Horse Mountain subdivision five miles north of Wolcott, saw an airplane flying low overhead and heard someone shooting from it, they knew something wasn’t quite right.

The land they own is ruled by homeowner covenants that prohibit discharging firearms, yet someone was shooting out of this plane.They wanted to know what was going on and why someone was shooting. A few phone calls later they found out.

The plane and gunner belonged to Animal Damage Control, a public and private program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The airplane and gunner were spotting and shooting coyotes. In Eagle County it occurs at the request of ranchers mostly north of Wolcott in winter and spring on public and private land.

But the plane shouldn’t have been flying over that subdivision.

Gunners fly five to 10 mornings a year over Eagle County and kill up to 35 coyotes, according to David Moreno, who heads the program in northwestern Colorado. They kill coyotes and other predators when ranchers want action.

This controversial program is decried by environmentalists and animal rights organizations, but is one that sheep and cattlemen say is necessary. It’s a practice on which there seems to be no philosophical middle ground.

Predators vs. profit

“The idea of government funding to kill animals without much analysis on the effect on the balance of nature is really controversial,” said Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild, a Boulder-based animal habitat and preservation organization.

But for Julie Hansmire of the Hansmire Campbell Sheep Company, which grazes several thousand head of sheep across the vast backcountry of Eagle County each summer, aerial gunning – when needed – is something that works. Her sheep spend the winter on the range in eastern Utah.

Hansmire said that up to 5 percent of her lambs each season are lost to coyotes and other predators despite use of guard dogs and other non-lethal measures. With the razor-thin profit margin of most agricultural operations, each animal lost means lost profit.

“Most people don’t understand it,” she said. “It’s a really effective tool especially if you’re having kills every night. If they were owners, they would completely understand it. To us, coyotes are thieves.”

Thieves or not, the program, which started in 1915, has outlived its usefulness, said Wendy Keefover Ring of Sinapu, an organization seeking to restore native carnivores to the Rockies.

Wolves and grizzly bears were wiped out by government trappers more than 50 years ago following programs aimed at controlling the amount of livestock lost to the predators.

“It’s expensive and used to kill public wildlife – it’s not very successful,” she said. “When coyotes are persecuted by humans they change breeding strategies. It’s a big waste of taxpayer money and really inhuman.”

Picking targets

Ring said when a dominant male coyote is killed, it creates chaos in coyote societies, causing younger males to breed more often with more females, creating more demand for territory and, often as not, it creates more, not fewer, coyotes.

But Moreno said Ring’s theory hasn’t been proven and said more research is needed to prove or disprove it. He said he’s certain of what his program can achieve.

“If we take out a breeding pair before the pups are born, you decrease the (livestock) damage substantially,” he said. “When the young are born, adult coyotes can kill two or three lambs a night.”

It’s not indiscriminate gunning, Moreno said. The pilots and shooters fly specific grids where livestock will be grazing and shoot coyotes there.

Recently they’ve even begun to maintain a lookout for wolves, which they will report to other wildlife authorities.

A young female wolf was killed in traffic 30 miles west of Denver after traveling more than 500 miles from its home pack in Yellowstone National Park. The last Colorado wolf was killed in 1945 in southern Colorado.

Wily coyote

Funding for the predator control program is shared. Wool growers contribute a portion of the expense while taxpayers pick up the rest. Moreno estimated the activities in Eagle County cost less than $10,000 annually.

Keefover Ring said the program costs taxpayers $20 million nationally.

For humans it’s an emotional issue and one destined to continue because coyotes are so intelligent and quickly learn to adapt to new situations.

“Not all methods of control work under all situations,” said Bill Andelt, a Colorado State University range ecology professor. Even guard dogs are only partially successful.

“After these dogs are out on the range for a while, coyotes kind of figure them out,” he said. “Most ranchers start out with a couple of guard dogs and now they need four or five.”

Coyotes also get used to bright lights, sirens and noise makers designed to scare them off. “They’re effective for a month and then coyotes get used to them and come back,” he said.

Adding to the debate, is a change in public opinions about predators and how to control them.

“Livestock producers have lost quite a few tools,” Andelt said. “At one time they had the use of toxicants that were pretty effective. In 1996 (Colorado) voters passed a referendum limiting use of snares and traps.”

Keefover Ring said aerial gunning has increased since the trapping was banned.

Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.com

Vail, Colorado

Wolves could help control elk

Reintroduction one of national park’s options
By MATTHEW BENSON
The Coloradoan

Rocky Mountain National Park is considering the reintroduction of wolves, ranger-led hunting and other measures to control an elk population that has more than tripled since 1969. An estimated 3,000 elk now roam in the park during the summer months, and roughly 2,000 migrate down into the Estes Valley during winter. Their increased numbers have degraded willow and aspen stands needed by other wildlife and have led to property damage and safety concerns in Estes Park.

Few dispute the need to reduce the elk herd, said RMNP spokesman Larry Frederick, but there has been a wide range of opinions on how to do it. The National Park Service has presented six alternatives as part of its development of an elk management plan. Public feedback will be sought at four public forums later this month.

But the idea of reintroducing a pack of 14 to 20 gray wolves to the park is sparking vigorous debate. Livestock groups say ranching and wolves don’t mix.

“We’re absolutely opposed to the reintroduction of gray wolves. Unequivocally,” said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association. “We’re not raising livestock to feed wolves.”

Reintroduction is “not even open for discussion,” she said, and the wool growers group wants a management plan implemented to reimburse ranchers for any wolves that migrate naturally to the state. There is a growing number of roughly 760 wolves in the three states north of Colorado.

“Wolves do indeed eat cows and sheep occasionally,” said Rob Edward, director of the carnivore restoration program for Sinapu, a Boulder-based environmental group. But if given the choice, he said, wolves prefer their natural prey.

It is expected that wolves reintroduced to RMNP would likely migrate beyond its borders, but Edward doesn’t anticipate significant livestock losses. That’s because a ready wolf food source — the elk herd — would be close at hand.

Any wolf reintroduction would likely come with a fund to reimburse livestock owners for any losses. Kline said such a fund hasn’t been effective in other states where, for every confirmed wolf kill, there are five to eight that are unconfirmed.

The fund, administered by Defenders of Wildlife, will likely be improved, Edward said. While he acknowledged the fund is imperfect, it makes ranchers a rare group that’s eligible for private reimbursement for losses suffered because of Mother Nature. For Edward, the issue boils down to this: Wolves are a natural part of the ecosystem and are needed to control the size and behavior of the elk herd.

“Because of the way wolves hunt, they keep elk on the move so they don’t spend so much time in one river bottom browsing everything down to the nub,” Edward said.

Frederick agreed that the loss of wolves, absent from the park since 1900, has played a role in the increase of the elk population.

In addition to wolf reintroduction, other options for elk management in RMNP include:

• No action.

• Culling roughly 300 cow elk in the park for each of the first four years of the plan, and 65 cow elk a year for the remaining 16 years.

• Fertility control to reduce the size of the herd to a targeted level of 1,600 to 2,100 during summer. Fencing also would be used to protect vegetation.

• Led by Park Service staff or contracted guides, members of the public who qualify as marksmen would remove 70 cow elk a year for 20 years. Limited herding, fencing and hazing through rubber bullets and other means would be used to further control the herd.

• A combination of culling and fertility control. Under this option, a large number of elk would be culled in the first five years to reduce the herd. Contraception then would be used to maintain the herd size, with additional culling as necessary.

Edward called those options the “head-in-the-sand proposals,” noting that past culling operations have proved ineffective.

“The only ecologically justifiable proposal is to reintroduce wolves to the landscape,” he said. “Wolves are an important part of the southern Rocky Mountains web of life and should be restored to as many places as possible.”

Frederick stressed that RMNP officials aren’t taking a position on the six elk options at this point. After public input is received, they hope to finalize a management plan by winter 2005-06.

“We’re trying to do this very carefully and thoughtfully. We’re not rushing this,” he said. “At the same time, the herd continues to grow.”

Wolves Coming Our Way

Ancestral competitor elicits fears, passions and stirs political debate

By Gary Gerhardt, Rocky Mountain News
August 7, 2004

Wolves.

No animal on Earth inflames the passions of admirers and detractors alike.

It is not the animal so much as the symbol imprinted on our psyches, a strand of evolutionary DNA harkening back to our cave-dweller ancestors who fought the sabre-toothed tiger and cave bear and competed with the wolf for game until they eventually domesticated the animal to serve as hunter, companion and sentinel.

Wolves might seem a strange subject for a column dealing with Colorado watchable wildlife, because there is no proof any wild, free-born wolves exist in the state.

And, yet, the animal found crushed June 5 on Interstate 70 west of Dumont definitely was an animal born two years before to the Swan Lake Pack west of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and apparently walked 490 miles just to meet an untimely end.

“You can bet more will be coming,” said Ed Bangs, the Rocky Mountain wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“And chances are good the next one in will come the same way as that one killed on I-70, sticking to the hillsides and the valleys and preying on deer or other kills it can make.”

While it seems a huge number of people are “seeing” wolves in Colorado, it’s important to understand that, unless the animal has a radio collar on verifying it is a wild wolf rather than a full-blooded wolf that became too much for someone to handle or a wolf-dog mix that got loose, seeing a wolf is almost impossible.

Bangs believes it could take a decade or two before two unmated individuals will wander into Colorado and link up to establish a pack in the state.

The state has a committee trying to establish a management plan in case wolves do wander in, or if the Fish and Wildlife Service decides Colorado has habitat suitable to help re-establish the Mexican wolf being reintroduced in New Mexico and Arizona.
Of course, it won’t be biology that makes the final decision but politics driven by public opinion.

One poll indicated more than 70 percent of Coloradans favored a return of wolves, and a quickie habitat assessment by the Fish and Wildlife Service indicated biologically there is adequate prey and habitat for up to 1,000 wolves in the state. The chance of anything like that happening is slim, but the possibility does exist.

A history

According to the Wolf Education and Research Center Web site, the lineage of wolves can be traced to an ancient species called creodonts some 30 million to 60 million years ago.

Somewhere along the line they branched into cat and dog families, and by the time humans appeared on Earth, they were pretty well established as the wolves we know today.

Equally interesting, biologists say all dogs descended from the gray wolf, and even a pet Chihuahua and the 350 other breeds of dogs today share 78 chromosomes with wolves.

While much is made by wolf opponents that the wolves re-established in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are not the same subspecies that historically lived in those areas, Bangs says, “A wolf is a wolf.”

“There are gray wolves and red wolves, two distinct species, but that’s all. The Mexican wolf and the gray wolf in Alaska are the same animals. The size differential is due to environmental differences.”

Some sportsmen are prejudiced against the wolf, believing they will kill trophy elk and deer that the hunters want to kill themselves.

Some stockbreeders believe wolves will decimate sheep and kill calves.

Bangs tells them, while wolves will take some game and domestic animals, “a pack of wolves doesn’t go through an area like a lawn mower, destroying everything in (its) path.”

A familiar family

One thing that fires the imagination of people about wolves is the similarity of their family dynamics. It’s probable humans learned to cooperate as a family unit by watching wolves. A wolf pack is a family group with an alpha male and female (the mother and father) and their offspring (usually the two or so surviving pups from the previous year), including pups from the current year.
Because the older male and female are better hunters, when they leave the pups, an “aunt” or “uncle” stays back to protect them.

Wolves are monogamous, mating for life, which also is considered a virtue in human society, although alphas will stray occasionally.

A 2-year-old usually breaks off from the pack, becoming a lone wolf until it finds a suitable mate.

In the search, it might fall in with a rowdy pack that doesn’t accept it and could be driven off, injured or even killed.

Long-standing fears

Feelings about wolves in North America were formed before the first white settlers arrived on this continent’s shores.

Europeans brought a hatred and fear of predators based on myth and because of the economic impact of the wolves that roamed most of the Northern Hemisphere from the Mediterranean to Finland and from Portugal through Russia into Siberia.

There, as here, wolves preyed on livestock and were exterminated throughout most of Europe, and their numbers, even today, are greatly reduced in the Near and Middle East into India.

The extermination frenzy here started during the western expansion between 1860 and 1885.

Woolgrowers and stockmen offered bounties for wolves, and professional trappers called “wolvers,” were hired to poison and trap wolves.

During one winter in 1861, three trappers in Kansas took more than 3,000 wolves, coyotes and swift foxes worth $2,500 in bounties and pelts.

Between 1914 and 1926, 136 wolves, including 80 pups, were killed, shot or poisoned in Yellowstone because they were a “menace to the deer, elk and bison.”

Colorado had its share of wolves, and perhaps the most notorious was Old Three Toes, a wolf that lost part of his foot to a steel trap but still led his pack between New Mexico and southern Colorado for two years before being dispatched in 1929.

Only eight wolves were seen in Colorado national forests in 1936, and two years later, the number dropped to two.

What is believed to have been the last free-born wolf in the state was killed by a government trapper in 1943 in Conejos County.

Are wolves really a threat to humans?

This is a question that forever will be debated. Most experts agree: There is no record of any person being killed by a healthy, wild wolf in North America in the past century. But yes, people have been bitten by wolves usually for one of four reasons according to The Fear of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans, edited by John Linnell.

Rabies. A majority of attacks involved rabid wolves.
Habituation. Wolves that lost fear of humans by being fed.
Provocation: Wolves provoked into attack when humans cornered or trapped them or entered their den.
Highly modified environments: Attacks occurred in areas where humans have greatly altered the environment.