Wildlife officials clash over predators in Nevada
For the Associated Press
RENO – An escalating dispute 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 proposal approved by the Nevada Wildlife Commission in December – because the idea is not supported by state biologists and Ken Mayer, state wildlife director. The idea was pushed by two sportsmen groups that insist the state is doing too little to protect deer from predators.
After the decision by federal wildlife officials, Nevada Wildlife Commission Chairman Gerald Lent announced formation of a committee to explore ways to restore Nevada’s mule deer population, which critics said 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. “Somebody’s got to do something.”
“The battle between biology and public input is often a sticking point,” said Chris Healy, spokesman for the Nevada wildlife department. “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, said they will not do so without the 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 the federal 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 federal decision. His new Mule Deer Restoration Committee will explore ways to increase deer populations, including possibly closing 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.
“The governor gave me and our commission a direct order – that he wants something done about our declining deer numbers,” Lent said.
Commissioner Scott Raine, chairman of 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 former Republican state Assemblyman John Carpenter who is on the committee said some people don’t want to admit predators are a big factor.
“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.
Others argue that is an over simplification and say the loss of critical habitat to development, wildfire and invading cheatgrass are 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 the wildlife department and commission should not 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 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.
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, state 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.
Tony Wasley, the state’s 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 wildlife department 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.”