Jamie Jonkel couldn’t help but smile a couple of weeks ago when a report of a trio of mountain lions near a Florence school bus stop hit the news.
The longtime Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife management specialist had seen it happen before.
“Those lions at Tie Chute were seen way at the upper end of the road,” Jonkel said. “It wasn’t near a bus stop. The man who made the report had just put his kids on the bus and he was on his way back home when he saw them.”
On top of all that, the sighting had happened two or three days before the big alert went out.
“We really do have lions all over western Montana,” Jonkel said. “Here around Missoula, every night in every side drainage of every mountain complex there are resident lions moving about …There’s not just one lion in Ravalli County. There are hundreds of lions. Wherever you have deer and elk, you can count on there being wolves, lions and bears.
“It would be nice to tone down the fear factor,” he said. “People are really terrified of lions. They think they are beasts lurking out there in the woods.”
At the same time they are worrying, people are also doing a variety of things that increase the chances that lions just might show up in their backyards.
For instance, in the Tie Chute area west of Florence, “everyone and their brother” is feeding the turkeys that have made the area their home.
“People start throwing corn out there every day and luring all those turkeys into their backyards,” Jonkel said. “Pretty soon, the turkeys begin roosting there and all the lions in the area say ‘oh boy, a roosting site.’ And then all of a sudden you have these lions that would occasionally coast through the area begin to make it a habit of checking out the new roosting area.”
Jonkel has seen the same thing happen when someone moves into the urban interface and decides they want to see more wildlife on their property.
“So they go ahead and slap down a couple of salt licks and the deer begin to hang around,” he said. “The game trails in the area change and pretty quick they are diverting off the top of nearby ridges or along streams. The lions follow those nice trails right into someone’s property.
“And then they end up calling me and asking me to do something about the lions that have suddenly appeared,” Jonkel said.
Another thing that attracts mountain lions into the neighborhood are house cats.
“A lot of folks don’t understand that once a house cat gets outside it goes feral,” he said. “It becomes part of the natural prey base. They urinate and spray. Lions are very attracted to the smell of cat urine.”
And then there’s all the people who own free-range rabbits, chickens, ducks and turkeys.
“Lions really don’t know the difference between a grouse and chicken,” he said. “People just need to realize that there are lions, wolves and bears all around them. They are nothing to be terribly frightened about, but you don’t want to create a situation where instead of them just ghosting through the area, they find a reason to stay.
“You don’t want to create prey pockets where you end up with multiple lions coming in to check to see what’s on the menu,” Jonkel said.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden Lou Royce said people need to remember that it’s illegal to feed wildlife in Montana.
It’s not only the predators that people need to worry about.
“We deal with a lot of urban wildlife issues,” Royce said. “Sometimes we end up with deer acting aggressively toward people after someone starts feeding them.''
While deer and elk might appear to be struggling through the winter months, providing them with high quality feed can sometimes kill them.
Royce knew of one landowner who would buy all the expired cereal from stores and feed that out in bins in their yard.
“It was just filled with sugar,” he said. “It was not good for them. All that Cinnamon Crunch cereal could end up killing them. Every time I go talk to people about feeding wildlife, they tell me everyone is doing it.
“I could write a lot of tickets,” Royce said. “Most of the time, people have no idea it’s illegal.”
While most folks living on the edge of wild lands might look up the hill and figure that all the critters are happy living out there in the woods, Jonkel said the transitional zone in a person’s backyard is actually the best habitat.
“All the deer come out of the woods to feed on all that green grass and flowers in your backyard,” he said. “As a result, you end up getting a lot of lion hunting along the edge of your house.”
Taking time to learn about predators can dispel a lot of fear.
“You don’t have to be overly concerned,” he said. “The best way to understand how to live with predators is learn as much as you can about them. In the end, you will find the species even more fascinating.”
A good place to start is missoulabears.org. The website includes updates on bear and lion activity in the Missoula, Bitterroot, Blackfoot and upper and lower Clark Fork valley. People can also report their own sightings or concerns and learn how to manage things that might attract a predator to their doorstep.