Despite past efforts to wipe mountain lions out of Montana entirely, the big cats have made a striking recovery. Managers estimate there are now 4,000 to 5,000 lions prowling the entirety of their historic range, and their numbers are growing.
To shore up those numbers, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing a new conservation and monitoring strategy that harnesses cutting-edge science to estimate population size and anticipate how hunting and other management actions could impact future generations.
I spoke with FWP wildlife biologist Jay Kolbe about the proposed strategy.
Jay Kolbe: It's really the first of its kind for Montana. Previously we've never had the ability to produce those kinds of data that we use for other species to set seasons or to ensure that we're conserving them. We've never been able to count lines in the state.
The strategy proposes monitoring by ecoregion as opposed to traditional hunting districts.
Nicky Ouellet: Can you describe what that is and how that differs from what's been done in the past?
JK: One of the most fundamental things about lions is their propensity to disperse. And they disperse long distances. And what that means is that if you try to achieve a management objective in a local area, a fairly small area, and when I say fairly small, think a county or a mountain range - even that's too small - in order to successfully manage mountain lions you need to at large scale. So these ecoregions group together portions of the state that have not just similar amounts of lion habitat but similar types of lion habitat. What it means in the western part of the state is we have three of these ecoregions, one in the northwest part of the state, one in the west-central portion of the state, one in the southwest. They don't perfectly correspond to Fish, Wildlife and Parks administrative regions. Again, we let the lions tell us where those lines should be. And that's fine for management. It's going to be a challenge, I think at first for both biologists, who identify themselves by their administrative region, and our sportsmen, who also are used to having a regional meeting to talk about lions. We are going to need to work with our neighbors, also, in order to develop those common objectives and to monitor lions at that larger scale.
NO: How are you proposing to count lions? They seem like kind of finicky creatures to get a handle on.
JK: They're pretty elusive and their habitat is generally timbered. You can't fly a lion population like you can fly an elk population. So what we're proposing to do is use a series of tools, both field-based, genetic-based methods to develop local population estimates that we can then extrapolate over larger areas to come up with population estimates that are useful for management.
NO: You mentioned some field-based methods that use DNA as a way to count lions. How does that work?
JK: Yeah this is pretty exciting. The best, most reliable way to collect genetic data is to tree the lion, just like a lion hunter would tree a lion with trained chase hounds. We use something called a biopsy dart. It's just a dart gun with a hollow needle that when you shoot the needle into the ham of the treed lion, it hits it and bounces right out and when it does it brings with it a small muscle sample. From that sample, we can identify lions to the individual.
Kolbe says the data from these genetic surveys, along with information collected from hunters and habitat data, will go into a new, interactive model that will allow managers to predict how changing hunting quotas could affect lion populations a few generations down the line.
NO: In the past it sounds like you were kind of flying blind.
JK: You know we did our best, and we worked with our sportsmen and hound handlers that were in the field to help us understand where lion populations had been and where they're going, but it was by dead reckoning. I mean it was just difficult and from that difficulty came controversy because we didn't have this kind of information.
Kolbe says the strategy is meant to be a durable framework and that hunting quotas will still be set annually so the department can regularly adapt to changing mountain lion populations.
He and other FWP staff are currently touring the state hosting information meetings about the proposed strategy. He’s hosting one Thursday night at the FWP office in Kalispell at 7.
Members of the public can submit comments on the strategy online; by mailing to Wildlife Division, PO Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701; or by emailing email@example.com through January 11. FWP will incorporate that feedback before it heads to the Fish and Wildlife Commission for final approval in February.