Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has never really been able to gauge its effectiveness in mountain lion management in the past. Populations have dipped and spiked in response to hunting pressure, but, as Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson puts it, the agency never knew if it was accomplishing its goals "in real time."
If Thompson's latest proposal to the FWP commission pans out, those days could be over. "We have the tools for the first time to be able to predict, with quite a bit of confidence, how the lion population will actually react to our harvest," Thompson says.
Those tools have come out of a string of recent studies in the West, particularly one conducted between 1997 and 2006 in the Garnet Mountains, east of Missoula. FWP biologist Jay Kolbe, a key field participant, says the first six years of the study saw increased hunting quotas for female lions in the Blackfoot River drainage. The second six years "turned off the spigot," Kolbe says, virtually eliminating the harvest. "We watched that population rebound back to near pre-treatment levels. They were able to recover from heavy, heavy hunting pressure very quickly."
Kolbe says the recent proposal, which aims to reduce lion populations by 30 percent, will create a "pulsing" harvest pressure on female lions, with significant, short-term increases in quotas. This should allow the agency to avoid "the big sweeping changes in lion populations that we've had in the past when we've had to manage less precisely," Thompson says.
Local biologists have increasingly mentioned lions as possible contributors to population declines among other species. In the West Fork of the Bitterroot, where elk numbers have dropped dramatically in the past few years, initial data in FWP's ongoing elk study has shown a higher percentage of lion predation than was expected. The agency is still a long way from drawing any conclusions about lion predation in the West Fork.
The change in Region 2's strategy for lion management is really a "trial," Thompson says. "The question is the social side of it. Will people tolerate or support a decrease in lion numbers? Because right now, the way we've been managing lions, the result has been high lion numbers. That, combined with wolf, black bear and other factors, is really putting the stress on our prey."
Public comment on proposed lion harvest quotas for Region 2 ends May 25.