State wildlife officials want to take a closer look at mountain lion populations in the southern reaches of the Bitterroot Valley.
If their proposed study is funded, they hope its results will provide some key information that will help in managing carnivore and ungulate populations across the state.
This week, members of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association anted upward of $10,500 to help the department pay for a density study of the elusive big cats.
Mountain lions have taken center stage as the chief predator of calf elk at the halfway point of a three-year study of elk and predator dynamics in the east and west forks of the Bitterroot.
In response to that research, the state has bumped up mountain lion harvest quotas in the two hunting districts in the southern Bitterroot for this upcoming season, in an effort to bring the lion’s population down by about 30 percent.
The only problem with that is no one knows for sure just how many mountain lions there are in that part of the valley.
Unlike deer and elk that are easily counted from the air at different times of the year, getting a population estimate on predators, like mountain lions, bears and wolves, is much more difficult.
FWP officials propose this winter to use mountain lion population sampling methods perfected several years ago in a large-scale study in the Garnet Mountains, said Kelly Proffitt, FWP’s lead researcher on the Bitterroot elk study.
Researchers would gather DNA samples from mountain lions in several ways and use those to produce an estimate of the animals in the area.
Houndsmen would be deployed to put lions up a tree, where they could be shot with a biopsy dart that would gather a small amount of muscle in its hollow needle. That muscle matter would be extracted after the dart fell off the animal.
Researchers would gather hair from snares set around the area. They would also back-track the animals in the snow and pick up scat. Additional DNA would be gathered from animals harvested over the winter.
“With the new season set to go into effect this winter, it would be important to know if the lions would backfill from Idaho,” Proffitt said. “We would expect to see their population stabilize at a lower density, but we don’t know that for sure because it hasn’t been measured before.”
The cost of the study would be close to $47,000. All of it would be paid for through private donations.
The University of Montana’s lead researcher in the elk study, Mark Hebblewhite, said people want to know how the information gathered as part of the Bitterroot elk study can be used in other places in the state.
While the research that’s happening in the Bitterroot is a large and expensive project that can’t be duplicated everywhere, there are ways to generalize the information gathered there to help integrate carnivore and ungulate management in other regions, Hebblewhite said.
The mountain lion study would provide valuable information that could make that possible, he said. With this winter’s expected increase in lion harvest, most people would expect to see an increase in elk calf survival.
But that’s difficult to quantify without knowing how many mountain lions there actually are in the area.
Science has a way of surprising people.
When the Bitterroot elk/predator study began, most people were convinced that wolves were the main cause for calf mortality.
“That’s the value of doing research,” Hebblewhite said. “Sometimes it surprises us. In this case, it surprised even me.”
Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association President Tony Jones said that organization offered its support Monday night after listening to the potential of the research.
“It’s always smart to back up harvest quotas and levels with science,” Jones said. “We’ve never had a science based study of mountain lions in the Bitterroot. As we move forward, this information would be important to setting future lion quotas.”
Mountain lion hunting is controversial in many places in the country. Jones said some states have banned it.
“In order to protect ourselves against the anti-crowd, we need to have good numbers,” he said.
Jones hopes other sportsmen’s organizations will step forward to help fund the remainder of the study.
“We are kind of predator central here in the Bitterroot as far as the state goes,” he said. “To have all of these studies going on here is really great.”
Reach Reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.