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Uncertain Population Counts Complicate Montana Mountain Lion Management

Mountain Lion in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
USFWS Mountain-Prairie (PD)
Mountain Lion in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

Anyone who’s ever hunted mountain lions will tell you that finding just one cougar in the wild is hard. Imagine trying to count all the mountain lions in Montana….that’s a lot harder.A video from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks shows one of the ways wildlife biologists are getting a better handle on the mountain lion population. Trackers use hounds to tree a mountain lion, before shooting it with a dart that collects a small DNA sample.

FWP wildlife biologist Jay Kolbe says new DNA testing methods provide a much better picture of how many lions there are, where they are, and how far they travel.

"Using the collection and re-collection of genetic samples within a study area allows us to come up with a real defensible, rigorous population estimate for lions," Kolbe says.

That’s important because the Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission sets quotas for how many mountain lions can be hunted in various parts of the state. In fact the FWP Commission is meeting in Helena Thursday to set the quotas for the coming year.

Many hunters, like Bob Driggers of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, think FWP needs to rein in the mountain lion population in the Bitterroot region, where he says elk, deer and other species have become scarce. He complained to the FWP commission at its April meeting.

"That’s where we’ve lost the majority of our ungulates in all cases. I mean, you can’t find a moose there anymore. You can barely get a tag for elk hunting there anymore. Even the people are down there are saying the mule deer are so low that they barely see a mule deer every now and then. That’s the area that we need to be concentrating on as far as mountain lion numbers and quotas."

Beyond setting quotas for the coming year, though, the state also needs a long-term plan for managing its mountain lion population, which involves counting them and controlling them.

FWP already has management plans for many other species, but not mountain lions. Part of the reason, as Jay Kolbe explains, is that the big cats aren’t like deer or elk, which naturally travel in herds...and that makes them a challenge to count.

"They’re solitary, for nearly their entire lives. Outside of breeding season or when females have cubs they’re solitary," Kolbe explains. "They’re associated with rough country and timbered country, and heretofore have been very difficult to count."

In fact newer testing methods appear to support hunters’ claims that the mountain lion population has been undercounted, resulting in fewer elk or deer in places where the lions flourish.

Researchers from FWP and the University of Montana used DNA sampling two years ago, and concluded that the southern reaches of the Bitterroot region were home to 167 mountain lions, twice the previous estimate. A new management plan will help officials know where the mountain lions are, and also what to do when there are too many.

Traditionally, mountain lions are controlled by hunting, but that is controversial. The Mountain Lion Foundation, a nationwide group based in California, opposes trophy hunting of mountain lions. Foundation president Tim Dunbar says eliminating the threat of a mountain lion isn’t as simple as killing one animal, especially when hunters take out an older animal with an established territory.

"That lion is killed for a trophy, all of a sudden his territory is opened up,  and you might have five or six young teenage mountain lions that aren’t really skilled in hunting, they are all in there trying to take a little corner of that open territory. It sort of looks like they sort of start preying on livestock too at the same time."

Dunbar’s group says mountain lions should only be hunted when they pose a threat to people, pets or livestock, never for sport. The Foundation convinced California voters to ban lion hunting in 1990. One downside of this is that the current population of cats in California is unknown, because without hunting, wildlife officials have less data to use for their estimates.

The Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation supports lion hunting as part of a balanced approach to managing wildlife. Tom Toman is the elk foundation’s science director.

"We think it’s important to have healthy predator populations out there, but they do need to be limited. If sportsmen want to partake in mountain lion hunting and there are adequate lions to support a hunt then we think they should be treated just like deer."

Toman says lions might indeed be responsible for the shortage of deer and elk in some areas…not because the lions have killed them, but rather because the herds shift to places with fewer predators.

"A lot of people when they find out animals have moved out of a basin, unfortunately come to the first thought is, well, the predators ate them all. And that’s very seldom the case, but they certainly are capable of redistributing animals out there."

The state is just beginning to draft a management plan for mountain lions. The process is expected to take months.

Montana FWP is asking for public comment on mountain lion management here, you can also find more info on mountain lions in Montana from FWP here.

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