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Feds, Nevada officials clash over deer predator control
By Jeff DeLong • jdelong@rgj.com • March 8, 2010

An escalating “war” over Nevada’s declining mule deer population and management of predators such as mountain lions and coyotes has top officials with the Nevada Department of Wildlife clashing with members of the commission that oversees them.

Federal wildlife officials have declined to proceed with plans to kill lions and other predators — a controversial proposal approved by the Nevada Wildlife Commission in December — because the idea is not supported by state biologists and Ken Mayer, NDOW director. The idea was pushed by two sportsmen groups which insist the state is doing too little to protect deer from predators.

After the decision by federal wildlife officials, Nevada Wildlife Commission Chairman Dr. Gerald Lent, last week announced formation of a committee to explore new ways to restore Nevada’s mule deer population, which critics say the department has failed to do.

“We’ve got a war going on,” said Cecil Fredi, president of Hunter’s Alert, one of two groups that successfully petitioned the wildlife commission to approve three predator-control projects Dec. 5.“Somebody’s got to do something.”

“The battle between biology and public input is often a sticking point,” NDOW spokesman Chris Healy said. “This conflict is not new to Nevada or other Western states.”

But U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services officials, who would be hired by the sportsman organizations to shoot and trap predators, say they
will not do so without full support of Nevada officials.

“It appears that NDOW and the commission have not yet reached agreement concerning the need for, and the adequacy of the science to justify” the projects, Jeff Green, director of the western region of Wildlife Services, wrote in a Feb. 19 e-mail to Mayer and Lent.“For us to proceed with conducting those projects while there is disagreement, and without concurrence from our primary state wildlife agency partner, would place us in an untenable position,” Green said. “We also share your desire to work within the bounds of good science.”

Lent said he and some other commissioners are “not real happy” with the decision by Wildlife Services. His new Mule Deer Restoration Committee will explore ways to increase deer populations, with possible actions including closing some areas with low deer numbers to hunting or eliminating doe hunting, Lent said.

“My plan is to listen to the people who live with the deer day to day,” Lent said, adding a new approach is “long overdue.”

“The governor gave me and our commission a direct order — that he wants something done about our declining deer numbers,” Lent said.

'Bloodthirsty' agenda

Commissioner Scott Raine, who will chair the new committee, said many factors play into the deer herd troubles but predators such as lions and coyotes are an “important component.”

Elko rancher and longtime former Republican state Assemblyman John Carpenter is on the committee.

“If you don’t get predator control you’re never  going to get the mule deer population or the sage grouse back. It’s that simple,” Carpenter said. “They
just don’t want to admit predators are a big factor, which I believe they are.”

Others argue that is an over simplification of a complex issue, with continuing loss of critical habitat to development, wildfire and invading cheatgrass among the primary causes of declining deer numbers.

Tina Nappe, a Reno resident who was the conservationist representative on the Nevada Wildlife Commission from 1979 to 1994, is among them. Representing the Sierra Club, Nappe in January urged Wildlife Services to reject a plan she
said provided “no biological documentation of the need.”

Nappe said NDOW and the wildlife commission should never even have considered the proposals submitted by Hunter’s Alert and the Nevada Alliance 4 Wildlife. “This was without a doubt the worst proposal I’ve ever seen,” she said in a letter to federal officials. “There was no purpose except they wanted to go out and kill predators.

“The current (wildlife) commission, I would call it bloodthirsty for killing predators. The majority believes killing predators will bring back mule deer. That view is not shared by many sportsmen.”

Among them is Mike McBeath, a sportsmen representative on the commission who was on the losing end of the 5-4 vote to approve the predator-control projects.McBeath said while predator control should play a part where it is scientifically justified, the commission is overemphasizing that solution. Commissioners should rely on the expertise of department biologists, McBeath said.

“The history of this commission is to focus on predators and they’re doing it in a way I just can’t support,” McBeath said. “They’ve gone outside their scope of power.”

In a Feb. 4 letter to Gov. Jim Gibbons, McBeath said he has “sincere concerns” some fellow commissioners are seeking to have Mayer dismissed as NDOW director because he opposes the proposals.

Among McBeath’s concerns are that approval of such projects could provide political ammunition to environmental groups and other critics, resulting in lawsuits or petition drives that could impair the state’s ability to control predators such as mountain lions.

Approving such proposals by sportsmen groups “with no backing of NDOW because there is no biological support for the project, will be spun by environmental groups and others as nothing more than the indiscriminate killing of predators,” McBeath wrote Gibbons. “This will give this commission, NDOW, Nevada and you a huge black eye in the eyes of the public.”

As an alternative, NDOW biologists proposed other efforts such as killing mountain lions and coyotes threatening a relatively small deer herd in the Simpson Park Mountains in Lander and Eureka counties. The commission rejected that proposal in favor of the sportsmen groups’ larger plans.

Problem widespread

Tony Wasley, NDOW mule deer specialist, said controlling predators won’t stop the disappearance of the sagebrush-covered terrain that deer depend on in Nevada and much of the West.

“We’re talking about a landscape-scale phenomenon here,” Wasley said. “The population is limited by habitat.” Where there is insufficient habitat, “all the predator control in the world won’t result in any benefit,” Wasley said.

Raine said the situation has him frustrated by what he views as an “agenda not to cooperate” with commissioners by top NDOW officials.

“Science is being used as an excuse for what the administration is doing and it’s not good science either,” Raine said. “I wish we could come to some sort of agreement but that’s not the way it seems to be headed.”


Predator control projects
On Dec. 5, the Nevada Wildlife Commission approved three projects sought by private sportsmen groups to kill predators of mule deer and sage grouse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services has declined to proceed with killing the animals because state biologists say it is not justified scientifically.

Projects proposed in fiscal 2010:
o $113,200 to kill mountain lions and coyotes to protect mule deer herds in areas of Elko and Lander counties.
o $50,000 to kill lions and coyotes to protect mule deer in parts of Humboldt, Lander, Eureka, White Pine, Lincoln and Clark counties.
o $50,000 to kill coyotes, badgers, skunks and ravens to protect sage grouse in parts of Elko and Lander counties.
o The projects would be funded by the NDOW Wildlife Heritage fund, raised with fees charged from the purchase of hunting tags to finance projects benefiting wildlife.

Nevada mule deer population
1976: 95,000.
1980: 127,500.
1985: 155,500.
1988: 240,000.
1990: 202,000.
1995: 118,000.
2000: 133,000.
2005: 107,000.
2009: 106,000.
Source: Nevada Department of Wildlife