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BILLINGS — One of the most elusive predators in Montana is on the verge of leaping into the digital age — mountain lions.

Jay Kolbe, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist based in White Sulphur Springs, is writing the state’s first mountain lion management plan. But to do that he first had to assure the department and the public that there is a way to accurately estimate the wily cats’ population.

“That’s always been the holy grail,” Kolbe said. “The greatest challenge in lion management is simply counting lions.”

What’s more, the count has to be objective and provide population estimates in real time to allow game managers the ability to set lion hunting quotas. The counts also have to be repeatable — like the annual flights over winter ranges to count deer and elk — to show population trends.

“I think we have a system to do both,” Kolbe said.

New ways

To put the new system into effect, the state will be broken up into "eco-regions" — four large areas home to mountain lions. Since 1971 when Montana classified lions a game animal — up until 1962 there was a state bounty on cougars — mountain lion hunting has been based on quotas for many individual hunting districts across the state.

The new way to estimate the mountain lion populations in these larger regions is based on a study in the Bitterroot Valley. FWP biologist Kelly Proffitt was the lead author of a 2015 peer-reviewed article about the study, along with seven other scientists who hailed from, among other places, the University of Montana’s Wildlife Biology program to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Proffitt said the counting techniques have proven fairly accurate.

“There’s no alternative method to allow an agency such as ours to have a routine monitoring program that’s time- and cost-effective,” she said.

When some of the study’s lion population estimates, which were based on the new methods, first came out in 2014, the higher count caused alarm among some lion hunters.

“The numbers they came up with in that study weren’t even realistic,” said Grover Hedrick, a veteran Boulder houndsman who has helped FWP and other agencies with lion studies.

Kolbe said the department could have explained the new numbers better, to emphasize that “we’re discussing the population in a different way.” Proffitt noted that using the same method in other places, like Granite County and along the Blackfoot River drainage, produced population numbers that weren’t as controversial among houndsmen.

“Certainly all estimates come with confidence errors,” she said. “But it’s still a metric of the population’s numbers that allow you to track trends over time.”

She said the techniques used for the study are now used in Washington and California as an accepted way to track populations.

In 2014 “the perception was that it was something new and crazy,” Proffitt said. That’s not the case anymore.

How it works

To develop trend data for lion populations in the state plan, FWP will incorporate genetic sampling from lions — capturing DNA using darts so the lions aren't handled or collared — as well as spatial capture-recapture models. Spatial capture-recapture models “provide a flexible framework … for studying spatial processes such as individual movement, resource selection, space usage, population dynamics, and density,” according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Another tool FWP will be using is an integrated population model — developed with assistance from the University of Montana — that uses all of the field research data, demographics and past harvest data.

The model will allow wildlife managers to plug in proposed harvest quotas to see how they might affect a specific population over the next three years, Kolbe said.

“It allows us to better manage lions to whatever objective,” Kolbe said. “All of these tools work together to inform a management program to ensure lions are conserved here and meet individual objectives. Before, we were really flying blind.”

FWP support

Kolbe has praised FWP for committing resources to the work. That commitment was partly motivated by the concern that anti-hunting groups might be able to halt lion hunting because population data was scarce.

“This is a good tool to help biologists across the state set seasons,” said John Vore, FWP Game Management Bureau chief. “We want to use the best available science for managing mountain lion populations.”

A draft of the state mountain lion management plan is expected to be released for public comment in soon. Kolbe hopes to have the tool available by next spring’s season-setting. Even then, Vore said the initial document will be a draft and open to change.

“People shouldn’t say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’” he said.

Criticisms of FWP’s mountain lion quota setting have sometimes driven a wedge between the department and hunters, breeding distrust of the agency. Kolbe said he is optimistic that the new plan will reassure lion hunters and nonhunters that Montana is committed to protecting cougar populations and cougar hunting.

“I hope this gives them more confidence in our ability … to protect the resource,” he said. “I’d like to rebuild some trust.”

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