Game Range Ramblin's
Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder
December 7, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
Mike Thorson is my kind of employee.
Mike is a home-school senior, who aspires to a career in wildlife management and is happy to donate time for some valuable work experience before beginning his college education next fall.
He works for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) because he wants to. That's one point in his favor.
Equally importantly, he works for free.
And, the intersection of Mike's skills and interests with the opening of lion hunting season was a dream come true for Mike and FWP biologists and wardens at the Region 2 office in Missoula.
It was good for Mike because he would potentially handle and process dozens of lion skulls and hides presented by hunters, as required by law after a kill is made.
It was good for FWP for the very same reason. He would handle the majority of specimens, leaving FWP employees with more time to use on other projects and priorities.
The forecast for Monday morning was lion skulls raining on Missoula. Lion season opened on Friday, December 1. Hunters are required to report their lion kills within 12 hours by calling the local FWP office during office hours or the statewide reporting number after hours. Fourteen kills were reported in Region 2 between the hours of 5:00 P.M. Friday and noon on Sunday. More would surely be reported later in the day on Sunday and first thing Monday. Many would be on our doorstep Monday morning.
Sure enough, Mike got his baptism under fire as soon as the office opened. Fortunately, it was only one lion to start with, so there was time for teaching and practice.
First came the paperwork. Dianne Schmautz showed Mike how we fill in the forms. Of critical importance is the location of kill. Dianne demonstrated how we guide the hunter through FWP's maps of Region 2 and spend as much time as necessary finding the correct location to the nearest square mile. The location is then recorded by section, township and range, and a hunting district assigned.
Lion hunters have to be familiar with hunting districts to hunt lions legally and allow FWP hunting regulations to serve their intended purposes. Harvest quotas are established by FWP and the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission for each hunting district or group of districts. For example, the quotas set by the Commission for Hunting Districts 283 and 285 this year are a combined 5 females and 10 males. If hunting conditions are favorable, quotas are met quickly. As of 3:30 P.M. on Monday the 4th, 2 females and 2 males had already been reported killed in Districts 283 and 285. A special 1-800 number has been established for hunters to call any time to learn whether the quota has been met in the district they are hunting in, and whether the season in that district is open or closed.
Mike's next lesson was at the cash register, where Dianne demonstrated how to process the $50 trophy fee. Lion hunters pay this only if they kill a lion. However, all lion hunters must have purchased the prerequisite lion hunting license no later than August 31.
Now it was time for processing the skull and hide.
John Firebaugh showed Mike how to attach a tag through the eye and mouth holes of the hide, which must remain affixed to the hide until it is tanned. Then he demonstrated the technique for worming a different tag along a knife blade, through the muscles of the skull, which will remain clasped around the zygomatic arch (don't you just love it when I talk scientific?) of the skull for at least one year.
Next comes the collection of scientific information. For someone who once had to have a veterinarian tell him his pet cat should not be named Grace, I don't feel terribly confident in describing how to confirm evidence of sex from the hide, except to say it looks different than a dog.
For those of you similarly afflicted, you can determine the gender of adult lions by measuring the diameter of the canine at the flat spot near the base of the tooth. A measurement greater than 12.5 millimeters indicates a male.
As John demonstrated, it is also possible to assign the harvested lion to an age-category, based on the eruption, staining and wear of the canines, principally. No juveniles (with body spots) may be killed legally. At 8 months old, you may find two canines side by sideone "baby tooth" on its way out and one permanent erupting. By 10 months of age, the baby canine is gone, and the new one has erupted, but it tapers smoothly from the tip all the way to the gum line. At 12 months, a flat spot on the canine emerges from the gum line, where the canine stops getting wider at the base. Lions between 1 and 3 years of age may be classified as subadults by the pronounced, fully erupted, flat spot at the base of the canines, with white to pinkish color on the canines and slightly worn incisors. Adults aged 3 years and older often have yellow stained canines, and all teeth show increasing wear.
Afterward, John demonstrated the procedure for extracting the premolar located directly behind either of the upper canines. In the lab, extracted teeth can be sectioned and aged, but the technique isn't as surefire accurate for lions as it is for deer and elk. That's why the age-class assignment by the method described above is useful in combination with the age determined in the lab.
During these periods of cold weather, a hot bath almost always precedes tagging and tooth extraction. There's no hope of sliding a tag through frozen muscle, or removing a brittle tooth intact from a frozen skull. So, there's lots of time for Mike to get acquainted with lion hunters while he's thawing their skulls in a coffee can full of hot water.
When it's over, maybe 15-25 minutes after the process began, hunters leave with a legally tagged lion head and hide, FWP adds more data to its records that help us interpret trends in lion populations, and Mike gains first hand experience in the techniques of wildlife management.
I just hope the experience we give him doesn't discourage Mike from becoming a wildlife biologist after all.