Science Won’t Save Colorado’s Mule Deer

by Abigail Ahlert, CSTPR Science Writing Intern

Decisions about wildlife management are often framed as scientific conflicts instead of political ones. In the case of Colorado’s mule deer, this is ineffective. It misrepresents science and keeps policymakers from making informed decisions.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) says that the state is about 110,000 mule deer short of a healthy population size. In an experimental effort to recover the deer population, CPW is moving ahead with predator control plans that would sanction the hunting of 15 mountain lions and 25 bears in the Piceance Basin and the Upper Arkansas River, despite widespread public opposition. Researchers have published multiple open letters criticizing the scientific foundation of the predator control plans. Environmental and animal rights organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Humane Society of the United States have come out against CPW’s actions. On April 12th, the conservation non-profits WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, one of CPW’s predator control collaborators.

Science as a weapon or a shield

Critics say that the predator control plans are a poor application of scientific research. One opposition letter points out specific problems with their experiment design and statistical approach. Others claim that CPW’s scientific integrity is corrupted by their financial dependence on hunting licenses. Opponents of CPW are using science as a weapon against policy decisions.

CPW maintains that scientists don’t fully understand why the deer population is falling. They say that monitored predator culling is a way of gathering more information. “We’re in the business of learning,” said Jeff Ver Steeg, CPW’s Assistant Director for Research, Policy and Planning. “We are proposing to act in the form of research. We haven’t assumed [that the cause of the declining deer population] is predation. We haven’t assumed it isn’t.” They responded to the above-mentioned opposition letter by pointing out areas of scientific uncertainty in the critiques of the authors. CPW is using science as a shield to defend their choices.

The downfalls

One of CPW’s commissioners, Chris Castilian, said, “Our main motivation is to get to the bottom of the deer declines we’ve seen. … More science is always better.” Experience suggests that this hope is not only false but also exploitive of scientific research.

Science is not effective as a weapon or a shield. For example, both sides are trying establish themselves as the objective part of the story; this is clear from the accusations of corruption and the response of a CPW researcher (“We’re biologists. We don’t think about things in terms of economics — to a fault”). We assume that impartial science can provide infallible guidance. But science alone, no matter how objective, will never be able to show us the right choice. Science provides information, but it doesn’t answer the question, What should we do?

Additionally, both CPW and those against the predator control plans are targeting scientific uncertainties as weaknesses in the other’s argument. This will not settle the debate because science will always come with uncertainties. As science policy author Daniel Sarewitz writes in reference to climate change, “…more research and more facts often make a conflict worse by providing support to competing sides in the debate, and by distracting decision-makers and the public from the underlying, political disagreement.” Waiting for perfect scientific consensus on how human interventions impact mule deer populations only hinders our ability to make informed decisions with available data.

That available data, even with its uncertainty, is necessary in the decision-making process. But it can only be used productively after the social and political framework of a problem is addressed.

Changing the approach

When we draw back the curtain on scientific disagreement, we see how values are an unavoidable part of the problem. Some believe that culling is an inhumane practice. Killing predators betrays their idea of ethical environmental protection. Some think that living amongst undisturbed nature is a fundamental part of what it means to live in Colorado, and that killing predators degrades this authenticity. Others may accept culling as means to an end in our current wildlife conservation approach. It and other environmental interventions maintain Colorado’s hunting opportunities, and many people have built family traditions and social groups around this aspect of Coloradoan culture. These are differences in values, not scientific understanding.

The mule deer controversy also draws in one of Colorado’s largest value conflicts: oil and gas development. This is a divisive topic, which intersects issues of economic growth, land rights and the gaping political divide between Colorado’s urban centers and rural parts of the state. Critics of the predator control plans suggest that habitat degradation associated with oil and gas activities could be negatively affecting the deer population more so than predators. Connections between energy development and environmental decisions, such as mule deer population control, will almost always present a tangle of competing financial and social priorities.

This tangle can be manageable but not when veiled behind science. Two steps must be taken before science can contribute to the problem of the declining deer population. To begin, we must collect a transparent record of mule deer stakeholders and their values. Who has a vested interest in mule deer? Why? The answers to these questions will help us better understand the mule deer issue without first dragging science through the political dirt.

Next, we must formulate concrete goals. There should be frank policy discussions of options to meet stakeholder needs. The political system is made for these kinds of fights. Only after the moral punches have been thrown can science inform decision-making, because the question will have changed from What should we do? to How can we do this?

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