I was that moronic kid who would do anything my brother dared me to, even if that involved, say, taking an ice ball to the face ("You flinched! You lose!”). I'm over the need for my big brother's approval, but I still love a challenge.
I took up one recently, after reading an interview in the Houston Chronicle with Logan Magruder, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. He complained that energy developers had gotten a bum rap in the press, and that "in reality, the producing community in the Rocky Mountain area has done a tremendous job coexisting with wildlife and, in many cases, enhancing the overall habitat.” He also said that if you looked at hunting statistics, “you'll see the yield is actually up. The number of animals harvested per hunter, and the number of hunters themselves, has increased over the past three years, while at the same time, the number of wells drilled has increased."
Since my husband, who could be categorized as an avid if not obsessive hunter, has long tired of my questions -- "So, do you think he means that more animals die from being hunted than die from having their habitat drilled?” -- I decided to take Magruder up on that challenge to examine hunting statistics.
The first hunting authority I called snorted when I read him Magruder's quote. He then gave me the names of other folks who might have something more constructive to say. Bob Elderain, who is with the Colorado Mule Deer Association, said that deer have been particularly bothered by so many new roads. But what about those pictures of herds hanging out around a drill rig? I asked.
"What no one picks up is those animals are never grazing or bedding down, chewing their cud," Elderain said. "They're all bunched up, on alert."
"Deer hunting as we've known it isn't going to exist," he says. "It's going to come down to road hunting.” Elderain has been hunting in western Colorado since he and his wife moved to the area in 1974. To be sure, he's lost some of his hunting spots to the maze of rigs and roads, but, he says, it's the outfitters who are hit hardest: "People aren't going to pay good money to an outfitter when anyone can go out there and drive right up to a herd."
Well, what about Wyoming? Jeff Obrecht at Wyoming Game and Fish was happy to share his state's statistics, and I looked through data from the past 10 years for six big game species. For both mule deer and white tailed deer, the number of hunters and the number of animals harvested have increased. But for moose, bighorn sheep and elk, the number of hunters and number of harvests have all decreased. And while the harvests and number of hunters for antelope increased since 1997, the 2006 numbers fell below those from 1992. So, in Wyoming, Magruder's statement isn't true for any big-game species other than deer.
And what does it really mean, that hunting yields are up? T.O. Smith, energy coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, points out that his agency is most concerned with the state of wildlife populations, not the success of hunters. In Wyoming, for instance, mule deer populations have declined by 46 percent, and Smith said it’s undisputed “that coalbed methane and deep gas drilling in Wyoming are causing declines in populations. We're always happy to see hunter populations up, and to see they are having successful hunts, but we want to see that occurring when we have healthy populations of animals.”
It helps to look at the issue with some degree of balance, he added. "You can't be overly pessimistic and point the finger just at energy development. But it's overly optimistic to say, 'Because we have higher harvest rates, the populations are fine.'
“There were hundreds of thousands of bison being harvested on the Plains, (and) people would have thought the bison populations were doing great."
So, there you have it, Mr. Magruder. Now, I dare you to work with hunters, conservationists and communities to find better ways to coexist with wildlife. And for that matter, I double-dog dare the press to stop letting industry off the hook when it trumpets misleading statistics.
Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes in Albuquerque, New Mexico.