When mule deer populations plummeted across much of the West in the 1990s, some sportsmen took aim at a familiar target. Kill the coyotes, which are adept at finding fawns in the grass, they said, and the herds will rebound.

Here in western Colorado, the state Division of Wildlife responded with a five-year study on the Uncompahgre Plateau. Researcher Chad Bishop compared mule deer fawn-survival rates on two plots of similar terrain. On one, he provided extra feed during the winter months. The results: 46 percent of the fawns survived in the treated area, while only 28 percent survived in the untreated area.

“If predation was the primary cause of depressed survival, we wouldn’t have seen this dramatic response,” says Bishop, who will soon publish the study results. The real culprit, he says, appears to be the poor forage provided by mature piñon pine/juniper forests that have not been allowed to burn and rejuvenate on a natural cycle. Bishop’s findings reinforce earlier studies in Idaho, which found that killing coyotes and mountain lions did nothing to help depressed deer herds there to recover. Together, the studies make a convincing case that hunters should focus on protecting and restoring the West’s diminishing wildlife habitat rather than blowing away coyotes. And, indeed, groups like the Colorado Mule Deer Association, which initially pushed for coyote control, have adjusted their focus away from predators and toward habitat conservation. But, as writer Hal Herring notes in this issue’s cover story, one group — the rapidly growing Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife — continues to be all but obsessed with predators. The group’s “predator derby,” held last January in Montana, is a throwback to our pioneering past, when farmers linked arms to drive out and slaughter all the predators in their area.

But it would be a mistake to equate Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife with some old-fashioned backwater hunting group. Under the leadership of founder Don Peay, the organization has attracted thousands of members across the West, raised millions of dollars, and gained political influence in high places — especially Republican ones. It has even won respect from conservation groups, such as The Nature Conservancy, for its efforts to cut through bureaucracy and fund habitat-restoration work.

Still, the group seems a step behind the times. Most notably, it has steered clear of energy development — perhaps the single biggest issue confronting the West’s wildlife — even as its colleagues have taken the plunge and supported drilling limits. Sportsmen’s groups have emerged as a powerful force to counter the seemingly boundless power of the oil and gas industry under a sympathetic Bush administration. They have created their own alliances, such as the influential Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and they have joined with green groups to fight for more regulation and restraint in the energy fields. And it’s working. Last month, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, D, signed into law a bevy of bills reducing the power of the oil and gas industry and requiring it to be more accountable to landowners and wildlife. These reforms wouldn’t have happened without the steady hands and quiet passion of the hook-and-bullet groups.

As the West grapples with the forces of energy development and population growth, it will need the combined efforts of everyone who cares about wildlife and the wild places. The question is: Will Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife join the team?