River Bend in 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

ON AIR: Toni Ruth on Predators in Yellowstone

07/19/10 An Audio Interview with Julie West, MLF Broadcaster

In this edition of our audio podcast ON AIR, MLF Volunteer Julie West interviews cougar biologist Toni Ruth about her decades of research, including study of the interactions and competition between wolves, cougars, and bears in Yellowstone National Park.


In the Montana Code, Puma concolor is generally referred to as mountain lions.

Species Status

Lions are classified as large predators along with bears and wolves, and game animals along with deer, elk, moose, antelope, caribou, mountain sheep, mountain goats, bears, and wild buffalo.Laws pertaining to Montana's endangered species do not apply to mountain lions because the law only covers nongame animals.

State Law

Generally, the Montana Code - the state's collection of its laws - governs treatment of wildlife in the State of Montana. The state also collects its state agency regulations in the Administrative Rules of Montana. Since our summary below may not be completely up to date, you should be sure to review the most current law for the State of Montana.

You can check the statutes directly at a state-managed website: http://leg.mt.gov/bills/mca_toc/ These statutes are searchable. Be sure to use the name "mountain lion" to accomplish your searches.

You may use Findlaw for Legal Professionals at this website http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/mtcode.

The Legislature

The Montana state legislature is a part-time bicameral legislature. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 100 members who are elected to two-year terms.The upper chamber, the Senate, consists of 50 members who serve four-year terms. The legislature meets for 90 days in odd-numbered years. Either the governor or a majority of legislators may call special sessions in order to deal with emergencies. However, the legislature has never succeeded in calling for a special session; the governor has called every special session in Montana history.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission sets the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Hunting Regulations. Along with mountain lions, the regulations contain provisions for the hunting of bison, black bear, deer, elk, antelope, furbearing animals, migratory game birds, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, turkey, upland game birds,webless migratory birds, and wolves.Any regulations concerning mountain lions in captivity can be found under a subheading below.

Setting Regulations

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission is a five-member board appointed by the governor. The members serve staggered four-year terms with three members appointed at the beginning of the governor's term and two members appointed two years later. There are no rules regarding its members' political affiliations, but at least one member must have experience breeding and managing livestock. The commission sets the state's fish and wildlife regulations, acquires property for the state, and approves Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks rules.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) enforces the state's wildlife laws and the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission's regulations. The department is part of the executive branch of the Montana state government. The department's director reports directly to the governor.

Hunting Law

Hunting of mountain lions is allowed in the State of Montana. The regulations governing "recreational" hunting of mountain lions 146 hunting districts.

Hound hunting is allowed.

MFWP allows the hunting of mountain lions with firearms and archery equipment. Montana has no rifle or handgun caliber limitation for mountain lion hunting. Archery equipment includes longbows, flatbows, recurve bows, compound bows, crossbows, and arrows. Archery only season is September 7 to October 20. Firearms are then allowed from October 26 to April 24.

Montana sets sex-specific quotas. Hunting districts are closed to the hunting of lions of that sex when the quota is met. The state's regional wildlife managers set the quotas in consultation with local biologists.

Public Safety Law

Montana law states that there is no criminal penalty for killing a mountain lion that is "attacking, killing, or threatening to kill a person or livestock." A person may also kill or attempt to kill a mountain lion that is attacking a domestic dog. The law does not mention what may be done if any animals other than dogs or livestock are attacked.

Depredation Law

Depredation law in Montana is by permit through the State's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The law specifies that within two days of receiving word that game animals are damaging property, the MFWP will investigate the situation. The department will then open a special hunting season, destroy the damage-causing animal, or authorize the property's owner to destroy the animal.

Owners of domestic animals are required to take certain steps to protect their pets or livestock, including paying a fee to cover the costs of enforcing livestock laws. There is also a government-funded compensation program for losses of domestic animals to mountain lions.


Mountain lions may not be trapped for fur in Montana.


Poaching law in the State of Montana provides some protection of mountain lions in law, but only as a deterrent. It is rare for penalties to be sufficiently harsh to keep poachers from poaching again.

For killing more than one mountain lion in a season, a hunter can be fined between $300 and $1,000, be imprisoned for up to 6 months, and have all their state hunting, fishing, and trapping privileges revoked for 2 years or a longer period imposed by the court. Hunting out of season can result in a fine between $50 and $1,000, imprisonment for up to 6 months, and the revocation of state hunting, fishing, and trapping privileges for a court-determined amount of time.

Road Mortalities

The Montana Department of Transportation does not keep records of mountain lions killed on the State's roads.


Mountain lions may be kept as pets according to Montana law regarding wild animals kept in captivity.


Mountain lion research is usually conducted in collaboration with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Published studies can be found on Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks' website. Long term mountain lion research projects in Montana have taken place in Bitterroot Valley and the Garnet Range.

Last Update: April 11, 2014


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