River Bend in Montana
 

MOUNTAIN LIONS IN THE STATE OF MONTANA

Since 1902 at least 13,188 mountain lions have been reported killed by humans in Montana. These mortalities peaked in 1998 when a record 818 mountain lions were reported killed. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department does not estimate mountain lion populations and has little verifiable information about how many reside in the state. Despite that lack of knowledge, Montana's mountain lion hunting quota remains high: 534 lions in the 2009-10 season. In the long-term Garnet Mountains Research Study, as of 2004, sport hunting was responsible for the deaths of between 58 and 75 percent of the radio-collared mountain lions within the study area every year.

SUMMARY: Mountain Lions in the State of Montana




Mountain Lion Habitat and Population in Montana

The state of Montana encompasses 145,552 square miles of land. Of this the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department (MFWP) estimates that approximately 74,000 square miles, roughly 51 percent of the state, is suitable mountain lion habitat. This habitat estimate might be a little excessive. Using a Gap Habitat Analysis map to ascertain the amount of mountain lion habitat in each of Montana's Hunting Districts, MLF researchers were only able to verify 47,975 square miles.

Map showing predicted distribution of mountain lions in Montanaas of June 1998.

Montana's mountain lion habitat is distributed primarily in the western and central portions of the state though mountain lions have apparently also begun to return to areas in the east.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department does not estimate mountain lion populations in their state, but attempts to monitor mortality trends through hunting tag sales, notification of kills, tooth age information, mountain lion/livestock conflict reports, and anecdotal information from hunters.

In an attempt to assign a mountain lion population number, MLF researchers generated mountain lion population estimates for the state by averaging the population estimates from eight other western states, based on habitat size and quality, and extrapolated it against the predicted mountain lion habitat of 47,975 square miles. These numbers are to be used solely to provide a discussion base line and should not be construed as official population counts. Based on these limitations, it is estimated that Montana's habitat could support up to 4,462 mountain lions, but it is likely that the actual lion population is less than half that number.

Montana's History of Mountain Lion Management

As in most western states, mountain lions in Montana were originally listed as a "bountied predator". This classification remained from 1903 to 1963, during which time at least 1,897 mountain lions were reported killed and turned over to government agents for the reward. In 1963 Montana's classification for mountain lions changed to "predator" with no bounty offered. In 1971, Montana reclassified mountain lions as game animals and established a regulated hunting season.

Today Montana is divided into seven hunting regions, each of which are composed of numerous hunting districts.

The 1996 Final Environmental Impact Statement for Management of Mountain Lions in Montana states that the objectives of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department mountain lion management program are to "maintain both mountain lion and prey populations at levels that are compatible with outdoor recreational desires, and to minimize human-lion conflicts and livestock depredation."

Within that document, MFWP proposed to update the statewide management strategy to include the following objectives:

  1. determine the carrying capacity of different habitats within the state for mountain lions and their prey;
  2. improve the ability to monitor populations and determine their status, composition and trend;
  3. improve the regulation of the annual "harvest";
  4. improve public understanding of mountain lion biology, habitat requirements and management; and
  5. develop policies and a proactive program to address human-lion confrontations and livestock depredation.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department actions have clearly demonstrated its intention to manage Montana's mountain lion population for the purposes of "recreational" hunting. Since its inception in 1972, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department continuously increased its annual hunting quota on mountain lions until, in the late 1990s, they were forced to reduce that quota due to complaints from sport hunters and outfitters that mountain lions were becoming scarce. Despite reductions, Montana's mountain lion hunting quota still remains fairly high. Montana's 2009-10 mountain lion hunting season had a quota of 534 lions.

Human-Caused Mountain Lion Mortalities in Montana

Since 1902, (the first year records are available) at least 13,188 mountain lions have been reported killed by humans in Montana. This figure does not include:

  • lion deaths from road accidents,
  • secondary poisoning,
  • kittens or injured adults euthanized by MFWP,
  • death by unknown causes, and
  • poaching.

86 percent of these mortalities occurred after mountain lions were declared as game animals in 1971. Based on 108 years of records, human-caused mortalities peaked in 1998 with a record 818 mountain lions reported killed that year.

Montana's Killing Fields

Based on a lion-mortality density model developed by the Mountain Lion Foundation, Montana averages 1.23 mountain lions reported killed by humans for every 100 square miles of habitat. The eleven western state average is 0.65. Using MLF's mortality ranking system, Montana ranks the 3rd deadliest from amongst the 11 states studied by MLF in reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities.

Between 1992 and 2001 sport hunting in Montana accounted for 96 percent of all reported human caused mountain lion mortalities with the remainder predominately the result of depredation kills.

In 2003 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department provided a gender breakdown of its mountain lion harvests for the years 1998 through 2001. During this 4-year period 52 percent (1,305) of the total sport hunting take were female cougars.

The percentage of female mountain lions killed each year still remains fairly high with females roughly accounting for 30 percent (105) of the 352 mountain lions killed during the 2009-10 hunting season.

Mountain Lion Studies in Montana

Rich DeSimone, a research biologist with MFWP, and his colleagues initiated a study of mountain lions in the Garnet Mountains in 1998 to better understand the affect of hunting on population characteristics and to guide Montana's future management strategies. According to DeSimone, "Most states have no idea what they're doing. They just hope that nobody challenges them" [about their quota numbers]. In an interesting side note, as of 2004, sport hunting was responsible for the annual deaths of between 58 and 75 percent of the radio-collared mountain lions within the study area.



Last Update: February 14, 2012

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