The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Wednesday passed quotas for cougar hunting over the coming season, including an effort to cut populations by 12.5% on a swath of northwestern Montana.
Earlier this year, the commission passed significant changes to the mountain lion regulations. Hunters can apply for either a limited permit for an area that allows hunting for the entire season, or an unlimited regional permit that will be hunted on a quota.
Previously, seasons varied by region, with Northwest Montana Region 1 being managed by special permit; Mid-West Region 2 managed by a special permit hybrid followed by a hunting quota for all lions not killed by permit hunters; and the rest of the state under a quota system.
With the commission adopting new seasonal structures in place, this left Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks with the job of coming up with quotas.
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“Our overall intention in our approach in recommending quotas this year is largely to try to retain the harvest that we have had in recent history,” Brian Wakeling, head of the game management office, told the commission. of FWP.
The exception, Wakeling said, is in northwestern Montana. As part of a new management plan, the ministry convened its first working group in March to make recommendations on management targets and quotas. In future years, task forces will be formed to make similar recommendations in other parts of the state.
The group focused on the ecosystem of northwestern Montana, covering Region 1 and part of Region 2, with an estimated lion population of around 1,400 – a number the group’s report acknowledges includes a some uncertainty and notes that populations are variable across the region. FWP estimates populations using modeling by combining harvest from hunters, information from previous studies, and capture-recapture programs to estimate lion density. Density is then compared to habitat quality.
The fundamental goals of the report call for management that minimizes “excessive” ungulate predation, helps recruit struggling ungulate populations, maintains healthy lion populations, and satisfies hunters and non-hunters alike. The group’s recommendation calls for a 12.5% decrease in lion populations with a focus on certain identified focal areas for “struggling ungulates or reducing urban conflict with lions”.
“Based on our modeling efforts and the population estimation procedures we use, we have made recommendations to try to achieve this goal,” Wakeling said. “So it’s not a 12 to 13% increase in the quota; what he’s trying to do is increase the quota, increase the harvest, so that he’ll achieve that within the 5-6 year lifespan (of the plan).
For all Regions 1 and 2, FWP sets its harvest target at around 350 cougars. Wakeling pointed out that many areas typically do not meet quotas due to remote hinterland or other factors limiting access. The recent average harvest for the regions combined is around 250 cats.
Mac Minard of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association testified in favor of the measure as the final piece after the season’s structure changes.
Opponents expressed concerns about how the FWP tracks mountain lion mortality and pointed to the importance of large carnivores in the ecosystem. KC York, with Trap Free Montana, said cougars killed by incidental trapping should be counted in quotas. Animals can only be legally captured by hunting.
The committee adopted the quotas unanimously.
Tom Kuglin is deputy editor of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. Its coverage focuses on the outdoors, recreation and natural resources.