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Hunters say lion numbers are down
April 20, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder

by Mike Thompson


Houndsmen from Hamilton to Superior, from Missoula to Seeley Lake and Lincoln, dropped a wet blanket on my suspicions that the lion's share is the largest share of elk calves in the Game Range elk herd.

About 30-40 avid lion hunters recently held a meeting with their local Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Commissioner, Charlie Decker, and FWP's wildlife manager and biologists in Region 2 to express their concerns over low and declining mountain lion populations across west-central Montana.

One by one, every houndsman at the table gave his assessment of lion numbers in his local area. And, one by one, every houndsman told much the same story. Few to zero large lions or large lion tracks. A sharp decline in total lion tracks. Few lions treed this season. Fewer females with kittens. A strong desire for reduced harvest quotas.

I learned a long time ago not to argue when you're outnumbered. But, why would we want to? FWP's data on harvest quotas and lion harvests provide no information to dispute the houndsmen's claims. While our data support FWP's contention that harvest quotas were one step behind an increasing lion population from 1990-1995, there is evidence to suggest that quotas and harvests overtopped the population's rate of increase in recent years.

It's gratifying to meet your objectives once in a while. FWP did not want to maintain lion populations at the "record-high" numbers of the early 1990s, and set management strategies to reduce lion abundance. The houndsmen called us together to inform us of our success, but were not there to congratulate us. Their aim was to correct the declining trend in lion numbers and recruit some older animals in the population.

The input from lion hunters was timely. FWP is now formulating its recommendations for lion quotas in 2000-2001, and we are discussing how best to stabilize lion populations and allow for improved population quality.

My question is this. If lion numbers are lower than they've been in 20 years, as some houndsmen contend, then how can we blame lion predation for continuing low calf survival in the Game Range elk herd?

I've also learned that declining calf survival isn't unique to the Game Range. The graph on this page shows a declining trend in calf:cow ratios all across west-central Montana since the late 1980s. If you want to make a case for increasing predation as the cause of declining calf survival, you need to find a predator or combination of predators that are common and increasing all across FWP Region 2.

Lions are common across Region 2, but we can no longer assume they are increasing, or even particularly abundant. And, is that the beginning of a recovering trend in calf:cow ratios since 1997? Even so, the average calf:cow ratio across Region 2 in 1999 remained lower than ever recorded in the "good old days" from 1980-1989. It will be interesting to see our final calf:cow tabulation for the region in 2000.

At 22 calves per 100 cows, calf:cow ratios in the Game Range herd are even lower than the Region 2 average, and they are not showing the same slightly increasing trend since 1997. If our lion numbers have declined as evidence suggests, then why don't we see a response in calf survival rates?

It may be revealing to compare calf:cow ratios across Region 2 with Game Range ratios in the next couple of years. If calf survival continues to improve in most of the region, but not on the Game Range, we can begin to zero in on mortality causes that are specific to our local area. Like grizzly bears. Or wolves. Or who knows what.

As far as lions go, I am interested in halting the apparent decline in the local population and stabilizing it at some moderate level. But, while we're sorting out possible causes of poor calf recruitment, I hope to delay a strong surge in the local lion population until we see how many calves we get to the winter range in the next year or two.

Thanks to the observations of houndsmen, who spend hundreds of days looking for lion tracks over hundreds of miles, we have another piece of the calf survival puzzle in the Game Range elk herd.

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