With winter regulations in the lower Rattlesnake in full effect, the last thing you would expect to see at the trailhead is a pack of dogs roaming at will. But under the auspices of a three-year-old program instituted by the Missoula Ranger District and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, that’s exactly what you may see if you’re there early enough on weekday mornings.
In response to increased mountain lion attacks in the Rattlesnake area in the past several years, FWP in 1999 expanded the previously established mountain lion “special management area” to include the lower Rattlesnake. During a 15-week period beginning in December each year, a hunter is allowed up the trail four days a week in pursuit of non-lactating female and sub-adult lions. The hunters, chosen through a special drawing and allotted one week each, are allowed to circumvent regulations by bringing a sidearm and as many hunting dogs as he or she can manage.
“The lions up there are not adversely trained to the presence of people,” says Joe Kipphut of the Missoula Ranger District. Kipphut cites the 1999 attack of a 6-year-old child at Marshall Mountain, as well as similar incidents, as the impetus for the program.
John Firebaugh, regional wildlife manager at FWP, says that his agency does not have an official estimate of the number of mountain lions in the area. “We know they’re in there, based on the number of incidents we’ve had with people and their pets,” he says. Firebaugh reports that three lions were killed in the first year of the program, and one was killed last year, but so far this year the hunters have come up empty.
According to Firebaugh, the special management area for lions encompasses several hundred square miles surrounding the Missoula area. “The intent is to hit the lions pretty hard around the urban area,” he says. The area holds a hunting quota of 15 female and 10 male lions per year, although those figures have never been met. “There were 23 lions killed that first year [1994-95], and the numbers go as low as nine, which is how many were killed last year,” he says.
Apparently, the program is working. “Based on the number of reported incidences over the past couple of years, it certainly seems to be helping,” Firebaugh says. “We still do get reports in,” adds Kipphut, “but nothing like that summer. A mountain biker called in a few weeks ago and complained about a mountain lion stalking him in the Rattlesnake. But I don’t know what a mountain biker was doing out there in all that snow.”