Lush river Inlet to Payette Lake in Idaho at sunrise.
  Photo Courtesy of:
  Charles Knowles / The Knowles Gallery
 
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HISTORY OF LIONS IN IDAHO

Say no to long seasons and high quotas.

In Idaho, mountain lions were hunted without limit from the time of European settlement until the 1970s. There was a bounty for mountian lions from 1915 until as recent as 1958, and as populations dropped, IDFG realized that they would need to intervene if they wanted to keep their population viable. In 1972, the state legislature reclassified mountain lions as a "big game species," thereby restricting mountain lion hunting to regulated seasons set by IDFG. The following year a mandatory check of sport hunted mountain lions was initiated. In 1975, a hunting tag was required for the first time on mountain lions.

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The History of Lions in Idaho

Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today's Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.

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What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago, and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the sabre-toothed lion.

During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleotologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Idaho, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.

Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840's, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.

Idaho's Bounty Period

Similar to other western states, mountain lions in Idaho were considered significant threats to livestock and other human interests for most of the 20th Century, and government policy at the time was to remove that threat.

Between 1915 and 1958, Idaho's mountain lions were considered a "bountied animal," and hunters were employed cooperatively by the State, livestock associations, and the Federal Government to kill them. Spotty record keeping during the early part of Idaho's bounty period (1915-1939), makes it impossible to determine exactly how many lions died as a result Idaho's numerous bounty programs, however at least 1,479 lions were turned in for the bounty during the 44-year period with 76 percent of those deaths occurring between 1940 and 1958.

Idaho's Transition Years - 1959 - 1971

In the mid-50s the bounty paid for mountain lions in Idaho dropped from $50 to $25, and subsequently the number of lions killed and turned in for the bounty dropped dramatically. At the same time the killing of lions for recreational purposes was increasing in popularity, and annual lion mortality levels in the '60s regularly reached or exceeded those of the previous decade. Lion mortality levels of this period peaked during the 1971-72 season with 303 reported killed. During this short 13-year period at least 1,849 mountain lions died in Idaho.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Stewardship

Almost sixty years of systematic preemptive removals and unregulated hunting eventually resulted in noticeable declines in Idaho's mountain lion population and its distribution in many of the most popular and accessible hunting areas. Dr. Maurice Hornocker's landmark research in the Big Creek drainage of the Frank Church River of No return Wilderness, coupled with concerns over the sustainability of the species, led to the reclassification of mountain lions in Idaho as a "Big Game Species" by the state legislature I 1972. This classification restricted the hunting of the species to regulated seasons set by IDFG. The following year a mandatory check of sport hunted mountain lions was initiated. In 1975, a hunting tag was required for the first time on mountain lions.

A 1990 Mountain Lion Management Plan by IDFG biologists called for maintaining mountain lion hunting mortality numbers at about 250 animals per year. However, despite the recommendations laid out in this plan, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in the mid-1990's authorized increases in hunting quotas for mountain lions in several regions of the state over concerns that elk and deer populations were below management goals. The Commission continued to increase the quota statewide in the late 1990s, particularly in those areas where mountain lions were claimed to be restricting growth of deer and elk populations. In 1999, the Commission adopted the state's first predator control policy.

In 2003, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game completed a Mountain Lion Management Plan which established the following goals:

Maintain mountain lion populations in Idaho at levels sufficient to assure their future recreational, ecological, intrinsic, scientific and educational values, and to limit conflicts with human enterprise and values;

  1. Maintain a diversity of sport harvest opportunities for mountain lion;
  2. Be responsive to human conflicts, livestock depredations, and prey population objectives; and
  3. Research and develop better mountain lion population-monitoring tools.

This particular Management Plan also stated that Idaho has the most liberal mountain lion hunting guidelines in the West. According to the plan, all of the U.S. states and Canadian Provinces surrounding Idaho have "more conservative seasons than Idaho. "This will continue to focus attention on Idaho's mountain lion population because of our long and comparatively unrestricted seasons."


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