Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wants to get a better handle on how many mountain lions live in the state, and they hope to conduct a study that may answer some of those questions.
Kalispell’s Region 1 office hosted a meeting last week that attracted nearly four dozen houndsmen from Northwest Montana.
By most accounts, mountain lion populations are stable, if not growing in the region.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist Jay Kolbe, the estimated lion population in Northwest Montana is 1,750, while the statewide total is believed to be between 4,000 and 5,000.
“It’s very preliminary,” Kolbe said. “We’ll have much more accurate estimates after the field monitoring work is completed. Again, the reason we’re proposing this monitoring strategy is to develop more accurate estimates of lion abundance across the state.
“If the strategy is approved, we should be able to sample the proposed ecoregions over the next three winters and will be able to provide both local and statewide population estimates then.”
Ian Caswell, a houndsmen from Rexford, said he’s never had so many lions to hunt as he does now.
“To me, this sounds like it could be something that’s going in the right direction,” Caswell said. “Maybe this is the study that can tell them what we really have out there.”
Caswell said he does his hunting in Hunter District 100, which encompasses an area just east of Lake Koocanusa, north to the Canadian border, west to the Idaho border and south to Libby.
Libby resident Don Clark has been hunting and chasing lions for nearly a half century. He was one who lobbied for the permit system years ago when resident hunters were concerned lions were being over-harvested.
“This is important for the future of lion hunting because some states have lost the ability to have regular seasons,” Clark said. “California, Washington and Oregon don’t allow lion hunting with dogs. This is a way to demonstrate how many lions there are because there will probably be another challenge to our season.”
Kolbe talked about the history of lions in Montana and how the plan could work, if the money is available.
“Lions were nearly eliminated in Montana by 1930. 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,” Kolbe explained.
Kolbe said it was likely that harvest numbers correlated with lion numbers, but they were never sure.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks has established four regions for study, including Northwest Montana’s Region 1 and Region 2’s west-central and northwest regions.
The price tag for the study wouldn’t be cheap — about $100,000 — and because it is a new expenditure, the Montana Legislature would have to approve spending the money that is in the Fish, Wildlife and Parks budget.
According to state figures, the bulk of the costs would be to pay hound handlers $65,000 to conduct grid searches of 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, coordinate the day-to-day field operations and prepare data for analysis.
FWP is seeking public comment on this plan and those are due at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15.
For those who prefer to submit written comments, they should be mailed to Montana FWP, Wildlife Division, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701. For those who email, the address is email@example.com or it can be done online at http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/publicComments/2018/mtnLionMgmtStrategy.html.
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.