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Temporary Hunting closure
for Lion Study Area proposed

January 6, 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


Mountain lion research in the Garnet Mountains will be one of the main topics of discussion at public meetings in Seeley Lake and Lincoln later this month.

Every January, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) holds public meetings in communities all across the state to hear your comments on proposed hunting season regulations for the coming fall. This year, the Seeley Lake meeting will be held at the Community Center on January 18 at 7:00 P. M., and the Lincoln meeting is scheduled for 5:30 P. M. on January 20 at Lambkins Cafe.

We'll cover everything from mulie to moose, and grouse to goose, depending on the interests expressed by meeting participants. But, FWP will make a special effort to clarify its direction for lion research in the Garnets, which includes a recommendation that lion hunting be temporarily closed for research purposes in the eastern half of Hunting District (HD) 292.

For those of you who don't have a legal description handy, the eastern half of HD 292 includes Elevation Mountain, Chamberlain Creek and Wales Creek. The eastern boundary of this area is the road connecting Ovando, Helmville and Drummond. The western boundary is the Garnet Range Road, which leads from Greenough Hill to Garnet Ghost Town and down to Bearmouth. The northern boundary is Highway 200 and the southern boundary is Interstate 90.

FWP proposes to establish a temporary 3-year closure to mountain lion hunting in this special research area. The closure would begin in October 2000. Lion hunting would resume in the fall of 2003.

Whether you hunt lions or not, whether you want more lions or no lions, you may be skeptical about FWP's ability to manage lion numbers in a way that balances concerns for human safety, livestock, prey populations, hunting opportunitiesand the lions themselves.

That's precisely why the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission and many local folks have been so interested in the Garnets lion study since Rich DeSimone and crew started capturing and radio-collaring lions in 1997. We all realize that FWP needs to provide better information to decision-makers when it comes to recommending hunting seasons for mountain lions. This research effort in the Garnets is FWP's latest attempt to do something about it.

And, with the benefit of two years of field experience on the Garnets study, Rich and FWP wildlife managers are now in a position to streamline the study and focus on work that will give us the most useful information for the money.

Are lion numbers increasing, decreasing, or staying the same? It seems like a pretty basic question, doesn't it? FWP biologists are able to make educated guesses, but it may surprise you to know there is no practical and proven technique available that allows biologists to scientifically document year-to-year trends in local lion numbers. We know whether lion harvests are increasing, whether harvest quotas are met within the first week or two of the season, whether sightings of lions are increasing, and whether we're seeing more lion tracks during winter track surveys. But, we don't know what relationship, if any, exists between these observations and the actual lion population. What better focus for the Garnets lion study than to develop reliable survey techniques for lion populations?

Fine. But, why close the Garnets study area to lion hunting?

Here's the idea. FWP wants to follow lion numbers through a 3-year increase, and then through a 3-year decrease, to see if track counts, harvest surveys and other information also increase and decrease with the lions. From this experiment, FWP researchers hope to identify the most reliable indicators of actual lion abundance.

Right now, numbers of adult lions in the eastern half of HD 292 are probably lower than they've been for some time. Lions in this area have been subjected to increasing harvest pressure over the past 5 years, and to focused, heavy pressure in the past 2 hunting seasons. Just ask Rich. More than half of the lions he radioed in the eastern half of HD 292 were killed by hunters from December 1996 through February 1999.

By removing hunting temporarily, Rich and his crew hope to document a strong increase in lion numbers on the study area over the prescribed 3-year period. Then in the fall of 2003, hunting will resume to experimentally drive the study population into decline once again. It is hoped that these actions will produce the kind of abrupt population fluctuations needed for a good test of indirect survey techniques, such as track counts.

This lion research area covers about 1/3 of a larger lion management area, which includes most of the rest of HD 292 (west of the Garnet Range Road), all of HD 290 (Brown's Lake area) and all of HD 291 (southeast of Helmville). Lion management and hunting will go on as usual in these and other hunting districts outside the special research area. Also, if depredations on livestock or threats to human safety dictate that individual lions should be killed or otherwise removed from the research area, they will be killed or removed as appropriate. The research project will not affect such decisions.

FWP sees this as an important opportunity for giving Montanans better and more reliable information to manage their mountain lion populations. FWP has enjoyed terrific cooperation from local landowners and hunters in the lion study area so far, and we are hoping to meet everyone who might be affected by the proposed hunting closure. Please mark the Seeley Lake or Lincoln meeting dates on your calendar, or call FWP at 542-5500 by January 22.

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