Keeping the sport alive
By David Reese
Some come from as far away as Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
They drive all day and through the night on the snowy back roads of northwest Montana, sitting four across in the front seat of a truck, rolling along narrow dirt roads and swilling coffee.
They're looking for sign of felis concolor: mountain lion.
When the hunters spot a track in the snow, they set their hounds loose. Sometimes the sign is merely a swash in the powdery snow from the cat’s thick, long tail, or maybe the hunters will get lucky and spot a good set of tracks along the road.
Only a few years ago, mountain lion hunting was a behind-the-scenes sport relegated to a few hardy locals. But now, with a system that allows any out-of-state hunter to buy a lion tag, lion hunters are pouring into northwest Montana. The situation is causing regional wildlife managers and not a few local hunters to clamor for a change.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks sets a quota for mountain lion killings in each district around the state. When the quota is met, wildlife managers close the season, sometimes on only a 24-hour notice.
The problem lies here: When there are several hundred people hunting in remote terrain with radio-collared dogs, it’s hard to get the notice out to the hunters that THE SEASON IS OVER. THE QUOTA HAS BEEN MET.
Hunting districts around Libby, in the extreme northwest corner of the state, are where many of the problems occur. In one district there this year, hunters shot 24 lions, twice the allowable quota.
Quota overruns have happened before. So this year, on the eve of opening day Dec. 1, regional wildlife manager Jim Williams set out to watch the hunt unfold. Arriving in Libby the night before the hunt, he drove through the parking lots of hotels, restaurants and grocery stores, places where hunters would be hanging out. He was looking at license plates, trying to get an idea of where the hunters were from.
"It was bustling with activity," Williams said later. "There was an inordinate amount of non-resident houndsmen." Washington, Oregon, Minnesota and Wisconsin were represented "en masse." And the next day, when the hunt officially started, "It was like a race," he said. "It was pretty incredible, the amount of people out there."
During the hunt, one hunter Williams talked to had had only six hours of sleep in four nights. He told Williams that if he weren’t out there, "someone else would be out there on the tracks.’
The solution, as Williams sees it, is to regulate the number of mountain lion permits with a drawing system, the way moose, sheep, goats and special elk permits are issued.
"Almost every houndsman in the Libby/Troy/Yaak area favors 100 percent permits as a solution to several serious problems we have with the hunt," says Libby houndsman Don Clark. "One of the problems is a tremendous overkill.
"In the Yaak, they took 24 lions in three days. That’s a serious problem. If the season were challenged in court, there’s no way we could defend that kind of overkill."
Clark says 14 of those lions were taken by out-of-state hunters.
As he describes it, many of the out-of-state hunters arrive with their entire hunting clubs, some from as far away as Pennsylvania. They know that the hunt may last only a few days or less, so many of them work in shifts, driving the roads looking for sign, then coming back to town for some shuteye while their buddies head back out.
And they're not shooting the older, trophy cats; they're taking the younger, more susceptible lions.
"Now, I don’t blame them. If I came from Pennsylvania and had a lion in a tree, and it was legal, I guess I’d take it too," Clark says.
According toe fish and game reports, the average age of lions killed in 1996 was about 6 years. Now the age of most lions being killed is 2 to 3 years — the subadults who tend to be the ones that get into problems around homes.
One reason for northwest Montana's heavy influx of hunters is that California, Oregon and Washington have banned lion hunting with hounds. Oregon voters banned hound-hunting in 1994. Washington followed suit in 1996.
In Montana, meanwhile, not only is the use of hounds allowed, but some of the best hunting is on public-access land.
"The last five or six years, the problem has been exacerbated. You have to feel for the out-of-state hunters," Williams says. "Where are they going to go?"
Kalispell taxidermist Bruce Babcock has noticed a significant decline in the number of local hunters who bring in cats for mounting or tanning. "We sure don’t get as many as we used to," he laments.
Babcock, of the Montana Taxidermist, thinks more non-residents are shooting cats and taking the hides back to their home states for tanning.
Mountain lion hunting is the only big-game hunt in Montana that allows the use of dogs. Hunters can track the hounds by radio signals once the dogs are set loose on a lion track. Some collars also have a mercury switch that signals when a hound’s head is raised, so the hunter knows when a cat has been treed.
A tracking collar is a safeguard for the hound as much as it is for hunting, says Clark. "Most of us just turn ‘em loose and follow 'em anyway. You just put the collar on for a safeguard."
After what Williams witnessed at the Libby-area lion hunt, he recommended last week to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners, who make the hunting laws, that Districts 101, 103 and 104 be changed to a permit-only hunt.
"A permit process will slow down the kill, give hunters a quality hunt, and give them time to find a cat they want," adds Clark. "There wouldn’t be any pressure to hurry up and kill a cat."
Clark has his opposition, mainly from people who want to shoot a lion every year.
"My question to them is, ‘How many do you need?’" Clark says. "It’s a trophy animal. If you kill one or two, that’s enough. If you want to kill something for food, go shoot an elk."
Before out-of-state hunters discovered the state's liberal lion regulations, the game department had little trouble governing the ranks. But now, as houndsmen move in from other states, "it’s become a disaster," Williams says. "It’s very difficult to manage."
A non-resident tag costs $320. Residents pay $15.
Region One of northwest Montana has the highest lion quota in the state, 154.
Statewide, lion hunting has skyrocketed. In 1971, the first year lion records were kept, 434 lion tags were sold. By 1998, the number had climbed to 5,932.
In 1971, only 51 lions were killed by hunters in the entire state. By 1997, Montana hunters killed 728 lions.
Region One has consistently produced the best lion hunting in the state, with 34 percent of the state's harvest, the highest percentage of any region.
"That’s a success based on conservative quotas," Clark asserts. "Hunters did that."
What hunters and game officials probably hope to avoid is a public vote on the lion hunt, as was held in Washington and Oregon. Once the hunt is gone, it’s usually gone for good.
In fact, it took an act of the Washington Legislature to allow its state game department to use hounds to track down and kill problem lions.
"It’s just a matter of time until the vote comes here," says Clark. "If we keep abusing our quotas, we won’t have a leg to stand on to keep our hunt."