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A black bear in a meadow (Wayne D. Lewis, Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

A Denver District Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit opposing Colorado wildlife officials’ plan to kill black bears and mountain lions as a way of boosting mule deer populations on the West Slope. 

Judge Robert McGahey, Jr., ruled that Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists can continue with plans to cull mountain lions and black bears from the Piceance and Upper Arkansas River basins. The November decision denies claims by WildEarth Guardians that the agency’s plans violated state laws prohibiting lethal trapping methods. 

Those laws — part of Colorado’s Amendment 14, which was approved by voters in 1996 — allow trapping for “bona fide scientific research.” McGahey found the two research studies met the definition of “bona fide scientific research” because they will provide new and relevant knowledge and will be carried out by qualified personnel with results suitable for publication.

The court also ruled that CPW’s research does not violate its mission to protect the public interest in wildlife.

McGahey in 2017 declined a request for a preliminary injunction to halt the studies, which involve monitoring mule deer populations on the Roan Plateau and south-central Colorado as the agency kills cougars and bears.

The project, floated in 2016 after decades of declining mule deer populations, attracted lawsuits from groups that point to development and lost habitat — not predators — as the source of any declines in deer populations. The agency completed plans for predator reduction in the Piceance Basin near Rifle in June 2019. The agency removed an undisclosed number of mountain lions from the 3,000 square-mile Upper Arkansas River Basin study area in 2018.

For the next three years, the agency will watch how deer populations change in central Colorado before removing more cougars. 

Lindsay Larris, the wildlife program director for the 206,000-member WildEarth Guardians, said the group will not appeal McGahey’s decision. 

“We have three years to work with the agency and the executive office to get the plan to go away or change,” Larris said. “There is a lot of oil and gas development and other development in these areas, and it’s a false argument to say ‘Cougars are doing this.’ It’s a way of not looking at the bigger problem by focusing on a smaller issue.”

MORE: People are effectively training bears to get into trouble, and Colorado wildlife officials are sick of it

A 2018 lawsuit filed in Colorado’s U.S. District Court by the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians is challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s majority funding of the $4.6 million project.

The federal government’s last response to the lawsuit in August 2019 argued that since the Piceance Basin study was completed and the federal agency was not participating in the Upper Arkansas River Basin study, the issue is moot.

The two groups argued in a September 2019 filing challenging the environmental review of the predator study that the federal agency should rescind its support for the CPW’s “predator killing studies” and dismiss the environmental review so it cannot be used to support future research involving the killing of mountain lions and bears.

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...