Montana Wildlife officials are hearing complaints about a new mountain lion study showing populations much higher than previously expected in the Bitterroot.
Opponents of the study accuse the state of using a faulty method to come to the higher population. They say the lion numbers are much lower, and hunting quotas should be lowered. The most vocal supporters of bringing down these quotas are the lion hunters themselves.
Grover Hedrick told the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission last week he has been hunting mountain lions in the state for over 40 years, 90 percent of that time in the Bitterroot Valley or the Blackfoot River drainage. He said the study numbers are way out of line.
It comes from a joint effort between Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and the University of Montana. It shows mountain lion populations in the Bitterroot two to four times higher than previously expected.
But, Hedrick was one of about a dozen lion hunters lining up to tell the commission he doesn’t believe the lion numbers are there. This group included Jason Levine, who was contracted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to work on the Bitterroot lion study. Levine and others used snowmobiles and hound dogs to track mountain lions for the study.
Opponents think the equations the state used don’t make sense for a number of reasons. They say lions killed through hunting were counted in the population estimate and not enough man hours searching for lions were accounted for in the process. Basically, Levine believes the population is less than half of what the study estimates.
“The folks that hunt lions are really passionate about the resource,” said the Chair of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Dan Vermillion.
The lion hunters don’t want too many of the cats taken if they feel it’s going to jeopardize the overall population.
But Vermillion said there are other Bitterroot hunters “who would tell you 'What's happened to our deer herd? What's happened to our elk herd? The wolves and the lions are killing too many elk and deer."
A different study from FWP found the majority of elk killed by predators in the bitterroot were killed by mountain lions—not by wolves as many had previously expected. Elk populations in the bitterroot are lower than FWP wants them.
But Nick Gevock with the Montana Wildlife Federation said that’s not because of lions.
"The stimulus of this whole issue was an overharvest of elk in the mid-2000s," he said.
The state Legislature passed a bill which mandated FWP lower the population of elk in the Bitterroot for awhile. Remember, normally the Fish and Wildlife Commission sets hunting quotas for elk.
“That was a classic case, in my opinion, of the legislature dictating to the scientists how to manage an elk herd, and I think we’re still trying to clean up from that,” Vermillion said.
The commission will be looking again at the mountain lion study and how the population conclusions were reached. A working group will be meeting over the next few months to try to decide what mountain lion quotas should be in the Bitterroot area. Right now, they are tentatively set at the same levels as last year.
The commission will make its final decision in June.
But Commissioner Vermillion says he hopes the passion Mountain lion hunters show for the lion populations can be a blueprint for how wolves are perceived one day.
"Where you have the guys that are going out to hunt wolves on a regular basis suddenly becoming the fiercest advocates for sound management of wolves," Vermillion said.