MILES CITY, Mont.--During the fall of 1990, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) implemented a region wide quota-based mountain lion hunting season across southeast Montana in response to increased sightings and sportsmen interest. The recent closure of the 2012-13 season brought an end to the 23rd consecutive year of regulated mountain lion harvest and populations continue to look promising.
Region 7 mountain lion management objectives strive to sustain populations at a level that promotes social tolerance and minimizes human or livestock conflicts, while optimizing recreational opportunity for sportsman and wildlife enthusiasts. Lions can be harvested by licensed hunters anywhere across the region except on the CMR Wildlife Refuge. Mountain lions actively harassing or attacking livestock can be harvested without a license by livestock owners; however these harvests are required to be reported to MFWP.
Annual mountain lion seasons include: 1) An archery only season without dogs which coincides with the general big game archery season, 2) A fall season without dogs which coincides with the general big game rifle season, and 3) A winter season with dogs which begins on December 1 and continues until April 14 or until harvest quotas are met.
During the 2012-13 hunting seasons, a region wide either sex quota of 30 was in place for Region 7 and 31 mountain lions were harvested. This marked the fourth consecutive year and the ninth time in 23 years that the regional quota was met. Annual harvest quotas for Region 7 have ranged from 5 to 30 and annual harvest totals have ranged from 0 to 31.
Of the 31 harvests during the 2012-13 seasons, 16 were males and 15 were females. Premolar teeth were pulled from each and will be sent to Matson’s Laboratory in Bonner Montana for age analysis, which are generally returned by mid-summer.
Since the inaugural seasons, 265 mountain lions have been legally harvested across Region 7; 165 males and 100 females. Ages have been determined for 204 harvested lions. Eighty-nine were 1-2 years old, 94 were 3-5 years old, and 21 were greater than 5 years old. Ages have ranged from less than 1 to 12.
According to Wildlife Biologist Dean Waltee, “an annual balance between male and female harvest or slightly greater (60%) male harvest, and all age classes represented indicates a healthy population, and are two of several indicators biologists consider while determining annual harvest quotas.” Because of the elusive nature of mountain lions and minimal survey resources available, annual population counts are not feasible, as they are for other big game species such as deer or antelope.
In addition to hunter harvests, 11 incidental harvests have been reported since 2007. Those include road kills, accidental trappings, and livestock depredation removals. Incidental harvests do not count towards the regional harvest quota. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks encourage reporting incidental harvest to area employees or regional offices.
According to Waltee, regulated mountain lion harvest has been a successful management tool in Region 7. “From a management perspective, the number of lions legally harvested over the past 5 years (133) relative to the number that have been removed for human safety or livestock depredation reasons (3), is an indicator of success,” said Waltee. “It suggests to me that we are providing a lot of recreational opportunity while minimizing the negative impacts to local communities.” Overall, social tolerance of lions across southeast Montana remains high and reported livestock depredations have been few.
Looking forward, Waltee expects mountain lion populations to continue to expand across the region. Initially, lions were harvested on or around the Custer National Forest in the southwest portion of the region. Over the past few years, we have observed annual lion harvest expand to the Colstrip, Hammond, Ekalaka, and Mosby areas. “Given the region’s abundant prey base and dispersal capabilities of mountain lions, these expansions have not come as a surprise,” said Waltee.
Population trends will be most influenced by harvest. The natural mountain lion prey base present across southeast Montana, which includes white-tailed and mule deer, elk, antelope, upland game birds, porcupines, furbearers, other predators, and a variety of small mammals, is annually plentiful. Disease and weather have not been limiting factors. “The goal”, Waltee said, “will be using regulated hunter harvest to maintain populations well within this natural prey capacity so lions have little or no need to predate livestock or the ability to significantly suppress big game populations.”
Waltee emphasized that management of mountain lions across southeast Montana will be a continual process of balancing sustained populations and desired recreational opportunities with tolerance from private landowners and big game hunters. “When it comes to managing large carnivores in southeast Montana, we need to recognize that the region is mostly privately owned and utilized for livestock production. Too many lions can become very problematic. We also need to remain cognizant that overharvest could result in an unnecessary loss of recreational opportunities and negatively impact our ability to utilize regulated harvest on federal lands, as has occurred in other states,” said Waltee.
Anyone interested in more information about mountain lion management in Region 7 should contact Wildlife Biologist Dean Waltee at (406) 436-2327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.