Public comment accepted through Jan. 11

By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor

LIVINGSTON – A proposal aimed at better understanding Montana’s mountain lion population was released to the public on Oct. 17 by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission and will be available for public review through Jan. 11.

This plan, which is many years in the making, incorporates genetically-based field sampling and a statistical model that includes lion ecology and decades of hunting data in order to estimate population numbers and their response to changing harvest quotas.

Jay Kolbe, an area biologist based in White Sulphur Springs, is the main author of the proposal. He said that historically, Montana mountain lions have been managed by administrative districts without fully understanding how many lions are on the landscape. “Until we had these new genetically-based monitoring tools, we really weren’t able to detect changes in populations,” he said, referring to the challenge of counting a species as elusive as the mountain lion.

Under the new proposal, lions will be managed based on ecoregions defined by habitat quality rather than administrative borders. “It’s a plan that tries to reflect how they live, how they move,” said FWP Commissioner Dan Vermillion. “It’s a pretty modern approach … it’s a remarkable plan.”

If approved, managers would periodically sample mountain lion populations in each habitat region by working with hound handlers and their trained tracking hounds in order to locate a lion and tree it. From there, the handler collects a muscle tissue sample with a dart gun and a retractable biopsy dart.

This sample allows managers to map lion DNA across the landscape and understand how they disperse and move about, as well as ensure individual lions are not counted twice. The method has been used before in isolated monitoring studies in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and the Phillipsburg area.

The 140-page proposal would act as a guiding document for decision makers and does not set population objectives or harvest quotas. Instead, these numbers would be reviewed periodically through a public process.

“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.

Following the commentary period, the proposal authors will compile public responses and address these comments before the commission in February 2019 in preparation for compete adoption.

Visit fwp.mt.gov to view the plan or call (406) 444-2612 for more information.