Wildlife officials propose study of Bitterroot’s lion population

2012-08-30T11:00:00Z 2013-02-18T17:11:48Z Wildlife officials propose study of Bitterroot’s lion populationBy PERRY BACKUS - Ravalli Republic missoulian.com
August 30, 2012 11:00 am  • 

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 pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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(5) Comments

  1. richardr11
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    richardr11 - August 31, 2012 5:22 pm
    You're not a predator Roger. You're an inbred coward with a gun. The wolves are the apex predator. They ARE the apex predator of the elk and deer and will continue to be for many years to come. Less wolves equals more deer and elk killed by the remaining wolves. You clearly can't grasp this simple fact. You lost you vermin and the wolves have won as they have an all you van eat deer and elk buffet. hahaha
  2. Roger
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    Roger - August 31, 2012 9:53 am
    No, humans are the apex predator. Wolves will continue to be killed so ungulates can recover - Bwah hah hah hah hah.
  3. richardr11
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    richardr11 - August 30, 2012 10:13 pm
    The cougars and wolves are supposed to keep the elk and deer in check. I am very glad outfitters are going out of business and Montana is seeing far less out of state hunters coming to Montana to hunt. The wolves and cougars are the apex predators who hunt elk and deer all year round. This is the way it's going to be for many years to come. Your hunting opportunities will get much worse and that is how it's going to be. Deal with it. haha ;)
  4. AAO22
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    AAO22 - August 30, 2012 7:39 pm
    Very true hellgatenights. Seems the elk herds, hunters and outfitters were doing just fine until recently. Now we have drastic declines in elk (and other ungulates) numbers, less hunter opportunity (permit only tags and reduced youth hunting) and outfitters going out of business - which is exactly what the wolf activists and the majority of liberals want. What in recent times has changed? The number of wolves in MT! The recent 'minimal' number of wolves counted in MT is astronomically surpassing the Federally agreed upon recovery goals. Sure, there is a high population of mountain lions in the Bitterroot - there always has been. When mt. lions are killing wolves there is a problem. Territorial predators, such as mountain lions and wolves, typically tend to steer clear of one another. Western Montana has an over abundance of predators. FACT. Which is why predator management/hunting is greatly needed and long overdo. The predator/prey balance is severely tipping to a non-recoverable status for some elk herds in MT - as stated by FWP officials at the Missoula public meeting earlier this year. Funny science indeed...'specially when the biologists doing these biased studies are hand-picked to support an agenda...which is to blame anything but the wolves.
  5. hellgatenights
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    hellgatenights - August 30, 2012 12:46 pm
    “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.”

    Right, that;s because lions have not been found to have a large impact on elk population......ever! The only time a lion is a problem for an elk s when it is born......those first few weeks it is vulnerable to many predators.

    I suppose we could do a study on woodpecker too..............but why? Why all know that pine beetles are killing the trees (and drought).

    Wolves......correct answer is wolves. Idaho wolves and Montana wolves.

    Where are the documented wolf kills from the west fork? Where is the study of predation losses on the winter range?

    If we have no idea how many lions are in the west fork, then why suspect them at all of elk predation?

    Strange science.
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