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Lion study: interests & concerns

February 3, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) proposes to go where no lion study has gone before. But, in the past few weeks, we've heard from some local residents who would rather not go along.

FWP's research proposal to implement a temporary 3-year closure to lion hunting in the east half of Hunting District (HD) 292 (as described in this column 4 weeks ago) has generated plenty of discussion at public meetings in Missoula, Seeley Lake, Lincoln, Drummond, Helmville and Ovando. The Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission will meet at FWP Headquarters in Helena on February 4 to render a decision on this and other proposed changes in regulations for the coming hunting season.

FWP has recorded your comments from local public hearings and presented them to the Commission for consideration before the meeting on February 4. Because there was so much interest in the lion study proposal, we felt an obligation to report back to you on FWP's final recommendation to the Commission.

We have chosen to stand by our original recommendation, and will ask the Commission to consider public comment and make a difficult decision. We have chosen this course of action because we believe the lion study and temporary hunting closure are necessary for FWP to make needed improvements in the management of lion populations across Montana. We also believe FWP can address the major issues and concerns we've heard from the public, now that we're aware of them.

"Your lion study might be alright, but why don't you take it to someplace in Eastern Montana?" We all got the point of this comment from a participant in the Helmville meeting. Of all the places in Montana, why study lions here?

FWP's answer is that the Garnet Range is fairly representative of lion habitat in west-central Montana. So, research results produced from this area might be applicable to other areas. And, it is an area where hunting is available as a tool to manipulate lion numbers as needed to complete the proposed work. (An important part of the study is a prescribed period of high lion harvest, beginning in the fall of 2003.)

People are concerned about human safety and livestock with a 3-year hunting closure in effect. So are we. FWP will continue to kill lions that kill livestock or pose a threat to people or property. If anything, you can expect a heightened awareness among local wardens, biologists and lion researchers because of all the attention the study has attracted. We will err on the side of human safety in our judgements about how to respond to lion complaints.

People are concerned about effects of an increasing lion population on elk and deer. Of course, this would be an issue wherever the lion study is conducted. The east half of HD 292 is advantageous because we've done annual helicopter surveys of mule deer populations for 18 years, and fixed-wing surveys for elk on spring green-up for even longer. So, we have a good program in place to keep tabs on prey populations. If deer and elk are shown to be in jeopardy, we will have the data to recommend abandoning the lion research, if necessary.

When we talk about possible effects on humans, livestock and prey, we tend to assume we'll have lions coming out of our ears after 3 years of hunting closure in the east half of HD 292. My prediction is that we've already experienced the lion numbers we'll see by the time hunting reopens in 2003. I think our lion numbers in HD 292 were quite a bit higher in the mid-1990s than they are now, after exceptionally high harvest levels in 1997-98 and 1998-99. My guess is that 3 years is long enough to approach the numbers we saw a few years back, but will not be long enough to exceed that by much, if at all.

Some people would be more comfortable if there was at least a little hunting allowed in the east half of HD 292. Couldn't we could allow 1 or 2 lions to be hunted each year, or maybe 3 or 4? Maybe, but the success of the study relies on a rapid population increase over the next 3 years for researchers to monitor, as well as a rapid population decrease after the fall of 2003. If we don't make a full commitment to the best possible study design, we're afraid we will reduce our chances of getting the study results we need. We can't afford to waste money, effort and public concern on such an important study if we're not prepared to give our best effort.

Can we be sure the hunting season will be opened in 3 years? FWP and the Commission are united in replying, "Yes!" FWP knows that if we are granted the opportunity to do this work in HD 292, it comes with the understanding that lion hunting must begin again in the fall of 2003. We expect this understanding to be entered into the public record at the Commission meeting on February 4.

You know, quite a bit of the work we do occurs behind the scenes. We hope you trust us to act in the best interests of wildlife on your behalf, but you often don't have the opportunity to check on this for yourself. But, with the Blackfoot-Clearwater 50th Anniversary Project, and now with the Garnets Lion Study, you've drawn us out from the cozy confines of our offices and field stations, into the public spotlight. We know you're keeping score. So, we're trying hard to make only the promises we can keep, and to keep the promises we make.

I think your interest and involvement is the best insurance that the Garnets Lion Study, if approved by the Commission on Friday, will yield the best possible results with the fewest possible side-effects. And, when it's over, FWP will know more about managing lion populations in our local area than almost anywhere else in Montana.

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