Supporters of the proposal -- largely members of hunting organizations, Western Slope residents and groups that profit from the hunting industry -- blame coyote predation for a dip in the deer population in recent years. Deer numbers could be increased, they say, by methodically seeking out and shooting coyotes of breeding age.
"I couldn't tell you the coyote population of this state, but I think there's a lot more of them than the ecosystem can support," said Dick Ray of the Colorado Outfitters Association. "There's no control to coyote populations other than disease. This would help restore the predator-prey balance all up and down the ecosystem. It's a responsible and necessary form of wildlife management."
Critics of the proposal, including environmentalists, animal rights activists and even some Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists and researchers, argue that the predator-control project is prompted less by biological science than by economic and political agendas pushed by pro-hunting Western Slope constituencies who want more deer to hunt.
"The state has no business artificially reducing the numbers of one wildlife species as a way to increase the numbers of another cash crop species for hunters to kill for sport," said Mike Smith, the state wildlife chair for Sierra Club.
"Coyote predation is a crucial cog in the well-being of the deer population. Coyotes maintain the quality of the deer gene pool by killing the weak, sick, injured and old, whereas sportsmen seek out the herd's strongest and largest members to kill.
"There's some skewed priorities and screwy logic at work here," Smith said. "Numerous studies demonstrate that reducing the coyote population does not result in an increase in the deer population. The deer mortality rate remains constant either way. Studies also show that mass coyote removals serve to raise, not lower, the rate of reproduction in coyote populations.
"The Division of Wildlife is already strapped for cash," Smith said. "They already can't do much-needed programs. They'd do better to focus their resources -- in this case, a whopping $2.6 million -- on species preservation and habitat improvement."
DOW researcher Bruce Gill, however, said the dispute is more a function of ideology, economic constituencies and social policy than of the size of coyote and/or deer populations.
"What's really going on here," he said, "is a stark difference of values between urban and rural residents over environmental policy. Urban residents tend to be very protective of critters and pastoral locales for their own sake, and they want the government to protect and maintain those things in their own right. Rural residents, on the other hand, tend to regard critters and locales in terms of their economic and utilitarian potential. They don't want the government interfering with that potential.
Political realities and killing coyotes
The plan that is being recommended this week calls for biologists to, for the first three years, hunt down and shoot pairs of breeding coyotes just prior to fawning season in a designated area of approximately 200-square miles near Grand Junction. In another nearby area of near-identical size and terrain, no coyotes would be shot.
This three-year period would be followed by a two-year period of inactivity to allow coyote and deer populations to stabilize in both locales, after which the "treatment" and "control" areas of above would be reversed for another three-year interim of shooting breeding coyotes in one area, but not the other.
"A comparison of the results in each of the areas in each three-year period should give us some baseline data as to the effect of coyote removal on mule deer populations," explained DOW wildlife manager Jerry Apker.
Apker, though, agreed with critics that the project under proposal is prompted more by "political realities" than by science.
"It came about," he said, "when constituencies who feel that coyote predation is having a significant impact on deer populations applied political influence on the state Legislature to institute a coyote-removal program. Politicians responded with a bill (HB-1483) that directed the governor to appoint a seven-member Predatory Management Advisory Committee for the purpose of recommending a plan. The legislature must then approve the plan."
Apker and other other DOW and Wildlife Commission officials acknowledged that there is no money in the DOW budget for the $2.6 million project other than $150,000 already appropriated by the Legislature.
"We don't get any state tax money," said Todd Malmsbury of DOW. "DOW funding comes almost entirely from hunting and fishing licenses and fees. The money for this program would have to be taken out of our wildlife cash budget, and we don't have sufficient funding to carry out all our wildlife missions as it is.
"There's a political and social component to wildlife management," Apker said, "and this project originated in the political process, not with DOW biologists. There will clearly have to be a direction from the state Legislature to make this program a top DOW priority."
The Rolls Royce and the Chevy
Gill, who authored a 1999 report to the state Legislature titled "Declining Mule Deer Populations in Colorado: Reasons and Responses," said that, "The body of scientific evidence suggests that the primary cause of low mule deer population is changes in their habitat, not coyote predation. The root cause lies in the human appetite for land and resources -- people chopping up the landscape with 40-acre ranchettes, fire-prevention programs that have altered vegetation to the detriment of deer, past over-grazing by livestock.
"My gut feeling agrees with most of the scientific evidence that killing more coyotes will not produce more deer," Gill said. "We'd be better off using DOW resources to reverse negative habitat changes than using them to reduce coyote populations."
Dianne Gansauer of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit advocacy group for wildlife conservation -- and who is also an appointed member of the Predatory Management Advisory Committee -- agreed that "this proposal is more a public-policy matter than a scientific issue.
"The data that this study would provide would be a good tool to have in our tool box," she said, "but, weighed against all the other needs of DOW, however, this is way too expensive. We need Chevy here, not a Rolls Royce."
Gansauer cautioned, however, that "there's a lot more at stake in this issue than sportsmen wanting a Saturday morning recreational opportunity.
"The deer herd of this state is a very valuable resource," she said. "There are Western Slope communities who's economies depend on revenues generated by hunting and fishing. It's a question of economics and people's quality of life, too."
DOW figures indicate that there were an estimated 529,115 mule deer last year, and that the population objective is 634,800 deer statewide.
The below-objective count prompted the Division of Wildlife to restrict buck deer licenses the past two years and issue them by drawing only.