Monday, April 19, 2010

NEVADA NEWS: Mule Deer Declining, Predators Targeted, Biologists Ignored

Declining western deer herds have biologists, sportsman groups and environmentalists clashing over whether mountain lions and coyotes are largely to blame and should pay with their lives.

On one side are those who believe the number of deer predators should be reduced through targeted hunting programs. Others say factors such as the loss of natural habitat and wildfires are the issue.

It's an emotional debate, says Jim Heffelfinger, regional game specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

"The scenario plays out in just about every state, Heffelfinger says. "When these things flare up, they're white hot."

That's the case now in Nevada, where the issue of killing lions and coyotes that prey on deer has state Department of Wildlife officials at odds with a governor-appointed commission that oversees them.

Nevada's mule deer numbered about 106,000 in 2009, down from a high of 240,000 in 1988, according to state estimates. Mule deer, characterized by their large, mule-like ears, are common throughout the western United States.

"We've got a war going on," says Cecil Fredi, president of Hunter's Alert, one of two hunters groups that petitioned the Nevada Wildlife Commission to approve three predator-control projects last December. It did so against the advice of department Director Ken Mayer and his biologists, who said killing mountain lions and coyotes was not scientifically justified.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, which has the final say, refused to proceed. Doing so without full support of state wildlife officials would put them in an "untenable position," says Jeff Green, director of the western region for Wildlife Services.

State biologists say the deer's troubles are not due to predators but to continuing loss of habitat from development, wildfire and invading non-native grasses.

Tony Wasley, Nevada's mule deer specialist, says when lack of habitat is the problem, "all the predator control in the world won't result in any benefit."

Gerald Lent, chairman of the Nevada Wildlife Commission, says predators are an important part of Nevada's mule deer problems and addressing them is "long overdue."

The issue is also heating up in Arizona and Oregon. Arizona's mule deer number about 120,000, half the size of the herd in 1986, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Oregon's mule deer numbered 216,154 in 2009, down from 256,000 in 1990, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Duane Dungannon, state coordinator of the Oregon Hunters Association, says that even though mountain lion hunting is allowed year-round, "it's not even putting a dent in the state's cougar population."

"It's no longer that uncommon to bump into a cougar when you're deer or elk hunting, but it's becoming more uncommon to run into a deer or elk," he says.

Brooks Fahy, executive director of the non-profit Predator Defense, based in Eugene, Ore., worries the state's cougar population is "crashing" because of year-round hunting.

Source: USA Today

Sunday, April 18, 2010

PENNSYLVANIA NEWS: WMI Audit Complete, Transparency Sought

A scientific review designed to deflate some of the controversy over the management of deer in Pennsylvania may instead promote it.

The Wildlife Management Institute recently completed a review of the Game Commission's methods for managing deer in the state. It was largely complimentary.

Scot Williamson, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based institute, told members of the General Assembly's Legislative Budget and Finance Committee Tuesday at the state Capitol that the commission's deer program is "scientifically sound" and based on a "credible model."

"But there is room for continuous improvement," he said.

It was one of his team's recommendations for making things better that has already sparked lots of debate.

Williamson pointed out that Game Commission biologists have been estimating deer populations both statewide and within each of the state's 22 wildlife management units. They have not been making those numbers public, however.

He suggested that needs to change.

Keeping the numbers hidden "has weakened the trust placed in the Pennsylvania Game Commission by the public and has affected the agency's credibility."

Carl Roe, the commission's executive director, defended the agency's practice of staying away from numbers.

For decades, the commission estimated deer populations and released those to the public. That did nothing to eliminate controversy over whether the number of deer in the wild fit the available habitat, he said.

That's why the commission has more recently tried to get hunters and others to look at deer impacts rather than deer numbers alone, he said.

"In reality, that actual estimate is irrelevant to (the deer herd's) effect," Roe said.

"We trained (hunters) to look at deer numbers per square mile. We're trying to shift that to get them to look at forest regeneration.

That's all well and good, said state Rep. Dave Levdansky, the Allegheny County legislator who requested this deer audit be done. But he said the commission should share its deer population estimates, too.

"That's like saying it's important to know whether the balance on my credit card is going up or down over time, but not what the actual balance on my American Express is," Levdansky said. "No, I think they're both important."

Regardless of whether the state talks about deer in terms of numbers or impacts, though, the question of whether the deer herd is the right size figures to go on.

The audit points out that the state's deer herd has been reduced by 25 percent since 2002. Rep. Bob Godshall, a Montgomery County Republican, said Tuesday he thinks most hunters would say the herd's been shrunk considerably more than that.

He called the reduction "the decimation" of the deer population.

Yet Bill Healy, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research biologist who collaborated on the report, said problems with forest regeneration — which has many causes — can only be addressed when deer are in balance with their food supply, and Pennsylvania may not be at that point yet.

"A 25 percent reduction looks like a big change. But it may not be quite enough," Healy said.

Deer recommendations

The Wildlife Management Institute's audit of the Game Commission's deer program called for some change. Its recommendations include:

» Discontinuing its use of counting deer embryos to measure deer health. That can work, but only if the commission were able to collect far more embryos than it is now.

» Expanding the monitoring of forest conditions to determine whether the deer program is leading to more forest regeneration.

» Refine its citizens advisory committees to include more non-hunters and/or have the committee on a statewide basis.

» Counting deer taken in the red tag, DMAP and urban deer programs more fully in its harvest totals.

Source: Pittsburgh Live