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Loewen explains that wardens in the state's seven enforcement regions don't have rigid policies for what to do with every kind of wild animal in every situation because every situation is different. "We're sort of decentralized," he says. "As far as trying to connect [regional policy] with the center, there's no connection there ... you might get seven different interpretations." For example, he says, a warden who finds an injured black bear a short distance from Helena might be able to make a quick trip to the rehab center, but to drive a longer distance with a similarly injured bear might be unrealistic or cause undue harm.
FWP Assistant Chief of Wardens Mike Korn says there's no written policy that enforcement officers follow when it comes to whether or not to take animals to the rehab center. "We try to operate off the rehab center's policy," Korn says, "but we rely on our officers' judgment and experience."
What are the department's baseline positions? FWP Communications Director Ron Aasheim refers to the agency's "Policy on Intake, Rehabilitation, Holding and Disposition of Wildlife." Dated January 2010, it lists mountain lion cubs up to six months as candidates for rehabilitation and permanent placement. This means the center can accept injured or orphaned mountain lion cubs, though such cubs have to be placed in zoos or educational facilities rather than released into the wild. Biologists generally agree that large cats would become overly comfortable with humans during the long internments they would require before reaching maturity.
The policy authorizes humane dispatch of those animals "with little chance of recovery." It also outlines what FWP officers should do if someone presents them with a wild animal "with injuries that are not life-threatening and/or do not require treatment." It explains a few conditions under which an animal in such a situation should be returned immediately to the wild. Two relevant conditions are that "the animal is not injured in any way and appears in good health" and that it "has been out of its natural environment for less than 12 hours."
There is no statement about what should happen if an animal fails, in a warden's judgment, to meet those conditions. As for animals that require treatment or have been out of the wild for more than 12 hours, there is only a paragraph break followed by a subheading and a section for the Montana Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. There, one finds a list of animals that cannot be accepted under any circumstances; another for those that can be accepted for rehabilitation and release in the wild; and yet another for animals such as mountain lion cubs under six months that can be accepted for rehabilitation and permanent placement in a zoo.
If this is the only policy document on the subject, there is no explicit statement that FWP officers should or even could attempt to take animals to the center. There is only the inference created by the paragraph break and the subheading for the rehab center, as if drafters assumed the very mention of a rehab center made such a statement unnecessary. That would make state veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey's statement about FWP officers"hopefully, they use good judgment"ring that much truer.
Almost a year has passed since some well-intentioned people found a mountain lion cub in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest. In that time, Montana's wardens have cited scofflaws and poachers. They've helped injured animals and they've been in situations where they had to make snap judgments about whether to put some of those animals down. This bears mention because almost every FWP employee interviewed for this story said in various ways that this one little cat, big as it may have become in the eyes of those involved, was just one piece of a much larger picture.
In Helena, wildlife rehab center manager Lisa Rhodin had a busy year, too. Over the past several months, she's placed six orphaned mountain lion cubs in zoos in New York, Mississippi and Idaho.
That the cubs were orphaned might not be pleasant to think about. And any question about whether people should be happy about wild cats living out their lives in zoos is a topic for another discussion. But FWP wardens transported all six of those cubs to the rehab center.
An earlier version of this story appeared in The Helena Vigilante, at helenavigilante.com.