FWP looking at the future of mountain lion management

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Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is hoping to finally be able to pinpoint the number of mountain lions living in the state.

A meeting held at Kalispell’s Region 1 office Nov. 28 attracted dozens of interested citizens, houndsmen and FWP officials as the newly-proposed mountain lion management strategy was explained.

“What we are trying to do here is to put all of the information we have gathered together in a way that will actually help us manage lions better,” FWP biologist Jay Kolbe said. “We want to implement a credible, science-based system to estimate lion population. We have never before been able to count lions in a credible way.”

While mountain lions are considered abundant in Montana, that was not always the case.

“We’ve learned from the studies done in the Bitterroot that Montana probably has some of the best mountain lion habitat in the western United States. Despite that fact, we had nearly wiped them out by the 1930s,” Kolbe said. “There were bounties for them and hunting was unregulated, but in 1971 they were designated as a game animal and they reoccupied their historic mountain range.”

While FWP knows the mountain lion population as rebounded well since hunting was regulated, it has struggled to find a way to accurately estimate the animal’s state-wide population. Since regulated hunting began in 1971, the state has used harvest numbers to help estimate cat population, taking data from the nearly 10,500 harvest locations between 1988 and 2015. Kolbe said it was likely harvest numbers correlated with lion numbers, but they were never sure.

The proposed management plan would split the state into four regions of study, Northwest (including the Flathead Valley and surrounding areas), West, Central and Southwest. Each region would also contain a 1,000 square-mile “Trend Monitoring Area,” where researchers, with the help of hound handlers, would collect more detailed data.

“We can’t get population numbers without doing this. I don’t know of any other way to come up with the numbers that people are asking for, and no other state does either, to be honest,” Kolbe said. “We hope to be in a better position to answer the population question in as little as three years.”

Kolbe said the proposed plan would cost around $115,000 annually, money that FWP would seek to have allocated by the Montana Legislature.

According to FWP figures, the bulk of the costs would be to pay hound handlers $65,000 to conduct grid searches within the Trend Monitoring Areas. The searches would cover 60 percent of the monitoring area during four sampling periods.

About $32,500 would be for a FWP biologist to run the study, which includes contracting houndsmen and other field staff, coordinating the day-to-day field operations and preparing data for analysis.

FWP is seeking public comment on the plan, comments are due by Jan. 15 at 5 p.m.

Written comments, should be mailed to Montana FWP, Wildlife Division, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701. Email comments to fwpwld@mt.gov or online at http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/publicComments/2018/mtnLionMgmtStrategy.html.

To read the draft strategy, visit http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/publicComments/2018/mtnLionMgmtStrategy.html.

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