Unlike deer and elk that can be counted from the air during certain times of the year, mountain lions live a secretive life that’s made monitoring their populations a challenge in the past.
On Tuesday, Nov. 27, Bitterroot Valley sportsmen will have an opportunity to learn about Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' new strategy to monitor and manage mountain lions from the man who led the effort to develop the plan.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jay Kolbe’s presentation on the proposed Montana Mountain Lion Monitoring and Management Strategy will begin at 7 p.m., at the Bitterroot River Inn.
Those who attend will discover that the cutting-edge effort wouldn’t have been possible without mountain lion population density research conducted in the Bitterroot Valley.
Kolbe’s presentation, with its accompanying opportunity for sportsmen to offer comments on the proposal, is being hosted by the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association (RCFWA).
That longtime Bitterroot sportsmens’ organization was a major supporter of a mountain lion research project that occurred in the upper Bitterroot Valley in both 2013 and 2016.
“The need for a statewide mountain lion management plan has been apparent for several years, but the question was always how do you come close to accurately counting mountain lions,” said RCFWA president Bob Driggers.
The mountain lion research effort in the Bitterroot Valley was an outgrowth of a major elk study focused on calf mortality. When researchers discovered that mountain lions were the main predator of elk calves in their first year of the life, the researchers decided they needed to establish a baseline number for lion population in the valley.
With FWP researcher Kelly Proffitt at the lead, the researchers developed population modeling techniques coupled with DNA sampling collected from both live and hunter-harvested animals to build a population estimate.
Kolbe said the methods pioneered in the Bitterroot were refined in a way that made it possible to use the same techniques to develop mountain lion population trends in other parts of the state.
“She and her team really were innovative in not only figuring out whether the process would be accurate, but also that it would be a practical method that could be used elsewhere,” Kolbe said.
The initial stage of the proposed mountain lion management plan is intended to outline the state’s intentions and methodology that it will use to monitor mountain lion populations over the long term to provide a better population estimate and a better understanding of mountain lion ecology.
It proposes to divide the state into four regions that share similar mountain lion habitat. Over time, biologists will develop population estimates for each region.
“We let the lions tell us where these eco-regions should be located,” Kolbe said. “They were defined by lion biology and lion habitat use rather than relying on administrative boundaries or hunting districts.”
The highest-quality mountain lion habitat is found in northwest Montana. The second best is west-central Montana, which runs from the Bitterroot Mountains to the Little Belts. Southwest Montana is the third highest. Eastern Montana is the last region.
Comments on the proposed strategy will be taken through Jan. 11. More information, including a copy of the management plan can be found at: http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/publicComments/2018/mtnLionMgmtStrategy.html
The state Fish and Game Commission will consider the proposal early next year. Once it’s approved, the second step will be reach out to the public again to begin developing management objectives, including hunting quotas, for specific areas using the tools outlined in the plan, Kolbe said.
Driggers said Bitterroot sportsmen will be following the process closely.
“I am sure this plan is a step in the right direction and will give us a working tool that will need massaging down the road to meet the overall objective,” said Driggers. “It will be interesting to follow its progress.”