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Montana’s new mountain lion monitoring plan launched this winter in order to better understand mountain lion populations and trends. PHOTO BY RYAN CASTLE

Montana launches strategy to monitor mountain lions

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

LIBBY – It teeters on the edge of insanity—eyes peering over days-old snow that rests on the shoulder of the road, I harbor an urge to turn every depression into a fresh track. Almost mindlessly, sitting passenger in my husband’s Tacoma, my eyes read the snow, read the stories forest critters have left behind.

But I’m not reading for comprehension, I’m looking for something specific. My eyes scan over the splayed-out marks and toe drags left by deer, elk and moose. I barely pause to process the pointed-toed track of a coyote. But when I see dimples—clean, perfectly placed steps and beautiful teardrop toes—I crane my head out the window and catch my breath. We stop the truck. I grab the GPS and mark the location of the track. My husband and I had finally found footprints left by a mountain lion.

We were working as contracted hound handlers for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks during the second week of December just south of Libby as a part of an effort launched this winter to estimate the number of mountain lions in Montana. Dubbed the Montana Mountain Lion Monitoring and Management Strategy, the new plan was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission in February 2019 and subsequently funded by the Montana legislature. And beyond learning more about the mountain lion population, this new strategy is an effort to find common ground.

Lay of the land

In what some wildlife managers describe as an unprecedented approach, state wildlife biologists have developed a mountain lion habitat map and intend to shift policies and practices away from human-designated administrative districts and instead look at mountain lions based on where they actually live. While researchers believe lions currently live in nearly all of Montana’s suitable habitat, having rebounded after the population was decimated alongside wolves and grizzly bears at the dawn of the 1900s, areas differ based on terrain and food sources.

In the northwest portion of the state—or the Northwest Mountain Lion Ecoregion—lion habitat is nearly continuous. The highly forested terrain is great for ambush predators and ample deer make northwest Montana, spanning from the Idaho and Canadian borders north to Missoula and east to the Rocky Mountain Front, some of the best lion habitat in the state.

The West-Central Ecoregion encompasses the Bitterroot Valley and dives east to Lewistown. This region is somewhat less quality than the Northwest because much of the cougar-prefered forested regions are separated by broad intermountain valleys.

Big Sky and the surrounding Gallatin Range and Spanish Peaks fall within the heart of the Southwest Ecoregion that captures the entire southwest corner of the state, ranging all the way east to Big Timber and Red Lodge. With only 1/3 of the total area covered by trees, the Southwest provides sparse high-quality habitat for mountain lions.

The entire eastern portion of the state, the fourth ecoregion, makes up a very small portion of mountain lion habitat as less than 10 percent of the region outside of the Indian reservations is forested.

“It’s a plan that tries to reflect how they live, how they move,” said former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Dan Vermillion when the plan was first proposed to the public in October 2018. “It’s a pretty modern approach … it’s a remarkable plan.”

Seeking answers

In order to estimate the mountain lion population, which is critical information for a game animal that is hunted, MT FWP has hired a handful of houndsmen and women to record GPS information and search for mountain lion DNA in designated areas within each ecoregion. These houndsmen, or hound handlers, have their own personal dogs that track mountain lions and push them into a tree—a method used recreationally to take photographs or hunt mountain lions and bobcats.

The question for cougar biologists has always been, ‘how many of the elusive critters are there?’ according to wildlife sciences professor Jonathan Jenks of South Dakota State University. He calls it the “Holy Grail of cougar management.”

And now DNA can provide accurate counting; it’s something researchers have never had before. Biologists can’t fly and count mountain lions like they do elk, pronghorn, deer or wolves, and prior to the latest population modeling science and genetics, they weren’t able to verify whether photographs or sightings reflected multiple cats or a repeat visitor.

“Until we had these new genetically-based monitoring tools, we really weren’t able to detect changes in populations,” said Jay Kolbe, author of the monitoring strategy and White Sulphur Springs area biologist.

The study began this winter in the Northwest Ecoregion and crews will be in the field until early spring, with plans to then return to the area again next winter. Crews will repeat the two-year cycle in each of the western ecoregions, amounting to a six-year rotation before returning to Libby once again. As a long-term monitoring regime, biologists hope to better detect population trends in the long run.

In addition to marking lion tracks on a GPS and collecting scat and hair, a critical aspect of the study is to collect tissue samples from individual lions. Once we find a fresh track, we work with our dogs to tree the lion and with a carbon-dioxide powered dart gun loaded with a biopsy dart that has a small, sharp head, we collect a tissue sample.

It’s a more invasive strategy than camera traps or hair snags used to research animals like wolverines, but according to Kolbe the strategy is less invasive than collaring or trapping as humans never handle the lion. Additionally, by contracting houndsmen, the agency is building partnerships and involving the public sector with the science.

“I’m hoping that because we have these new tools, that will bring everyone to the table with a common set of facts,” Kolbe said.

Visit fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/mountainLion/ to learn more about Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ research and management of mountain lions or to view the Montana Mountain Lion Monitoring and Management Strategy.

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