Like most states, mountain lions in Montana were persecuted as vermin by early European settlers. For decades, bounties were paid for each lion killed. Nearly 1,900 bounties were collected before they were reclassified as a game species in 1963.
Human-caused mountain lion still remains high, with increasing sport hunting quotas, conflict with humans, and habitat loss as the main causes.
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. 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 Montana, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years. Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song.
Montana first offered a bounty on mountain lions in 1879. They were officially listed as a "bountied predator" from 1903 until 1963, during which time at least 1,897 mountain lions were reported killed. In 1963 Montana's classification for mountain lions changed to "predator" with no bounty offered. As populations dwindled, MFWP reclassified mountain lions as a game species in 1971. With this new designation came protection and limits to how many could be shot. With regulated seasons and restrictions, mountain lion numbers grew.
In 1989 a 5-year-old child was killed by a mountain lion while playing outside a family home 20 miles north of Missoula. The next year, a child was mauled by a mountain lion in Glacier National Park. Between 1990 and 1993, Montana FWP received 77 calls from citizens concerned about mountain lion activity in their area. There was a growing disquiet among hunters who felt that mountain lions were reducing deer and elk numbers. In an attempt to satisfy the public concern, FWP raised mountain lion quotas and the state went from a harvest of 159 lions in 1988 to 776 in 1998. It was the highest number of mountain lions ever harvested in one state aside from bounty hunts.
Furious over the unprecedented harvest numbers, a group of people demanded that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reduce the quotas. They were concerned that too many mountain lions were being hunted, putting the entire population in jeopardy. Surprisingly, these objections weren't raised by anti-hunting groups. The pleas for lower harvest rates came from within the hunting community itself.
One mountain lion hunter, or houndsman, put it this way, "houndsmen have a better idea of what's going on with the cat population than anyone, because they're out there chasing them day in and day out. In the Bitterroot, as an example, the cats got shot down to about nothing. And all those houndsmen down there drove clear to Helena to say, 'Hey, we don't have any cats left.'"
In 1997, Montana FWP started a 10-year research project to study how hunting affected mountain lion populations. This this end, the research team radio-collared 121 individuals (24 females, 11 males, and 86 kittens). From the data gathered from radio-collars, the researchers were able to glean information on habitat use, reproduction, mortality, dispersal, and population growth.
FWP's most significant finding was that hunting has a major effect on mountain lion populations. Project biologist DeSimone explained that "people thought you couldn't really overhunt lions because the animals were too elusive, but in our study area, we found that hunting is the number one factor affecting mountain lion distribution and abundance." This research led to the establishment of a limited-entry permit system like the one used for moose, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep.
This subculture remains in the eastern parts of the State, while people in the highly populated western urban centers now generally maintain a more environmentally sensitive point of view. The demographic division between the east and the west is reflected in Washington politics, and has heavily influenced the success of cougar legislation and conservation efforts.