Mountain Lions in the State of Montana

Montana’s 8-month-long hunting season allows trophy hunters to kill 668 of the state’s native lions, using methods that include the use of hounds to chase and tree the cats before they’re shot. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) overestimates the state’s mountain lion population at 5,330 animals. The actual number may be less than half of that. A scientific analysis of the state’s habitat areas and known density rates for mountain lions puts their likely population between 2,112 and 3,258.

Montana’s long hunting season puts mother lions at risk of being killed and orphaning their cubs, who will die of starvation or be killed for straying onto farms in a desperate search for food.

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Bounty Period

Montana first offered a bounty on mountain lions in 1879. They were officially listed as a “bountied predator” from 1903 until 1963, during which time at least 1,897 mountain lions were reported killed. In 1963 Montana’s classification for mountain lions changed to “predator” with no bounty offered. As populations dwindled, MFWP reclassified mountain lions as a game species in 1971. With this new designation came protection and limits to how many could be shot. With regulated seasons and restrictions, mountain lion numbers grew.

Challenges in Mountain Lion Management

In 1989 a 5-year-old child was killed by a mountain lion while playing outside a family home 20 miles north of Missoula. The next year, a child was mauled by a mountain lion in Glacier National Park. Between 1990 and 1993, Montana FWP received 77 calls from citizens concerned about mountain lion activity in their area. There was a growing disquiet among hunters who felt that mountain lions were reducing deer and elk numbers. In an attempt to satisfy the public concern, FWP raised mountain lion quotas and the state went from a harvest of 159 lions in 1988 to 776 in 1998. It was the highest number of mountain lions ever harvested in one state aside from bounty hunts.

Furious over the unprecedented harvest numbers, a group of people demanded that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reduce the quotas. They were concerned that too many mountain lions were being hunted, putting the entire population in jeopardy. Surprisingly, these objections weren’t raised by anti-hunting groups. The pleas for lower harvest rates came from within the hunting community itself.

One mountain lion hunter, or houndsman, put it this way, “houndsmen have a better idea of what’s going on with the cat population than anyone, because they’re out there chasing them day in and day out. In the Bitterroot, as an example, the cats got shot down to about nothing. And all those houndsmen down there drove clear to Helena to say, ‘Hey, we don’t have any cats left.'”

In 1997, Montana FWP started a 10-year research project to study how hunting affected mountain lion populations. This this end, the research team radio-collared 121 individuals (24 females, 11 males, and 86 kittens). From the data gathered from radio-collars, the researchers were able to glean information on habitat use, reproduction, mortality, dispersal, and population growth.

FWP’s most significant finding was that hunting has a major effect on mountain lion populations. Project biologist DeSimone explained that “people thought you couldn’t really overhunt lions because the animals were too elusive, but in our study area, we found that hunting is the number one factor affecting mountain lion distribution and abundance.” This research led to the establishment of a limited-entry permit system like the one used for moose, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep.

This subculture remains in the eastern parts of the State, while people in the highly populated western urban centers now generally maintain a more environmentally sensitive point of view. The demographic division between the east and the west is reflected in Washington politics, and has heavily influenced the success of cougar legislation and conservation efforts.


The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department does not directly measure mountain lion populations in their state. Instead, wildlife managers use a combination of population models (see Robinson et al. 2015 in Library tab) and stakeholder desires in order to set their hunting quotas. The most recent statewide study took place in 2015 and estimated the local mountain lion population to be between 2,784 and 5,156, depending on population model assumptions. The population model developed by Robinson et al. (2015) suggests that “proposed changes to female harvest quotas for 2013-2015 will result in an annual statewide population decline of 3% and shows that, due to reduced dispersal, changes to harvest in one management unit may affect population growth in neighboring units where smaller or even no changes were made.”

Despite already high harvest rates, MFWP has frequently increased quota limits. They justify upping the numbers because hunters quickly reached and overran the set quota in previous years. MFWP interprets hunter success as an indication of a large mountain lion population. However, that interpretation fails to take into account any other factors that would increase hunters’ ability to find and kill mountain lions, such as higher ATV and snowmobile use, favorable weather conditions, or a myriad of other factors that could be at play. Whether hunter success reflects a robust mountain lion population is an issue hotly debated by many local stakeholder groups.

Montana is divided into seven hunting regions, each of which is composed of numerous hunting districts.

The 1996 Final Environmental Impact Statement for Management of Mountain Lions in Montana states that the objectives of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department mountain lion management program are to “maintain both mountain lion and prey populations at levels that are compatible with outdoor recreational desires, and to minimize human-lion conflicts and livestock depredation.”

Within that document, MFWP proposed to update the statewide management strategy to include the following objectives:

  • determine the carrying capacity of different habitats within the state for mountain lions and their prey;
  • improve the ability to monitor populations and determine their status, composition and trend;
  • improve the regulation of the annual “harvest”;
  • improve public understanding of mountain lion biology, habitat requirements and management; and
  • develop policies and a proactive program to address human-lion confrontations and livestock depredation.

Since its inception in 1972, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department continuously increased its annual hunting quota on mountain lions until, in the late 1990s, they were forced to reduce that quota due to complaints from sport hunters and outfitters that mountain lions were becoming scarce.

Human-Caused Mountain Lion Mortalities in Montana

Since 1902, (the first year records are available) at least 13,188 mountain lions have been reported killed by humans in Montana. This figure does not include:

  • lion deaths from road accidents,
  • secondary poisoning,
  • kittens or injured adults euthanized by MFWP,
  • death by unknown causes, and
  • poaching.

86 percent of these mortalities occurred after mountain lions were declared as game animals in 1971. Based on 108 years of records, human-caused mortalities peaked in 1998 with a record 818 mountain lions reported killed that year.

Human Caused Mountain Lion Mortalities in Montana

Based on a mountain lion mortality density model developed by the Mountain Lion Foundation, Montana averages 1.23 mountain lions reported killed by humans for every 100 square miles of habitat. The eleven western state average is 0.65. Using MLF’s mortality ranking system, Montana ranks the 3rd deadliest from amongst the 11 states studied by MLF in reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities.

Between 1992 and 2001 sport hunting in Montana accounted for 96 percent of all reported human caused mountain lion mortalities with the majority of the remaining 4 percent the result of depredation incidents.

In 2003 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department provided a gender breakdown of its mountain lion harvests for the years 1998 through 2001. During this 4-year period 52 percent (1,305) of the total sport hunting take were female mountain lions.

The percentage of female mountain lions killed each year still remains fairly high with females roughly accounting for 30 percent (105) of the 352 mountain lions killed during the 2009-10 hunting season.



The state of Montana encompasses 145,552 square miles of land. Of this the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department (MFWP) estimates that approximately 74,000 square miles, roughly 51 percent of the state, is suitable mountain lion habitat. This habitat estimate might be a little excessive. Using a Gap Habitat Analysis map to ascertain the amount of mountain lion habitat in each of Montana’s Hunting Districts, MLF researchers were only able to verify 47,975 square miles.

Montana’s mountain lion habitat is distributed primarily in the western and central portions of the state though mountain lions have apparently also begun to return to areas in the east.

Montana’s mountain lion habitat is distributed primarily in the western and central portions of the state though mountain lions have apparently also begun to return to areas in the east.

Mountain lions prefer habitats with brushy understory to open habitat. They tend to spend their time in areas with rugged terrain, such as steep canyons, and thick vegetation in which they can stalk their prey. Since the vast majority of their diet consists of deer, they tend to live in places where deer are abundant. Mountain lions are sensitive to human disturbance and tend to avoid areas with high human activity.

In other western states, a growing number of people are recreating in wild spaces and new housing developments are pushing further into traditional mountain lion habitat, increasing the number of human-mountain lion encounters. However, in Montana human encounters with mountain lions remain rare.


In the Montana Code, Puma concolor is generally referred to as mountain lions.

Species Status

Lions are classified as large predators along with bears and wolves, and game animals along with deer, elk, moose, antelope, caribou, mountain sheep, mountain goats, bears, and wild buffalo. Laws pertaining to Montana’s endangered species do not apply to mountain lions because the law only covers nongame animals.

State Law

Generally, the Montana Code – the state’s collection of its laws – governs treatment of wildlife in the State of Montana. The state also collects its state agency regulations in the Administrative Rules of Montana. Since our summary below may not be completely up to date, you should be sure to review the most current law for the State of Montana.

You can check the statutes directly at their state-managed website. These statutes are searchable. Be sure to use the name “mountain lion” to accomplish your searches.

You may use Findlaw for Legal Professionals at this website.

The Legislature

The Montana State legislature is a part-time bicameral legislature. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 100 members who are elected to two-year terms. The upper chamber, the Senate, consists of 50 members who serve four-year terms. The legislature meets for 90 days in odd-numbered years. Either the governor or a majority of legislators may call special sessions in order to deal with emergencies. However, the legislature has never succeeded in calling for a special session; the governor has called every special session in Montana history.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission sets the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Hunting Regulations. Along with mountain lions, the regulations contain provisions for the hunting of bison, black bear, deer, elk, antelope, furbearing animals, migratory game birds, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, turkey, upland game birds, webless migratory birds, and wolves. Any regulations concerning mountain lions in captivity can be found under a subheading below.

Setting Regulations

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission is a five-member board appointed by the governor. The members serve staggered four-year terms with three members appointed at the beginning of the governor’s term and two members appointed two years later. There are no rules regarding its members’ political affiliations, but at least one member must have experience breeding and managing livestock. The commission sets the state’s fish and wildlife regulations, acquires property for the state, and approves Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks rules.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) enforces the state’s wildlife laws and the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission’s regulations. The department is part of the executive branch of the Montana state government. The department’s director reports directly to the governor.

Hunting Law

Hunting of mountain lions is allowed in the State of Montana. The regulations governing “recreational” hunting of mountain lions 146 hunting districts. Hound hunting is allowed.

MFWP allows the hunting of mountain lions with firearms and archery equipment. Montana has no rifle or handgun caliber limitation for mountain lion hunting. Archery equipment includes longbows, flatbows, recurve bows, compound bows, crossbows, and arrows. Archery only season is September 7 to October 20. Firearms are then allowed from October 26 to April 24.

Montana sets sex-specific quotas. Hunting districts are closed to the hunting of lions of that sex when the quota is met. The state’s regional wildlife managers set the quotas in consultation with local biologists.

Public Safety Law

Montana law states that there is no criminal penalty for killing a mountain lion that is “attacking, killing, or threatening to kill a person or livestock.” A person may also kill or attempt to kill a mountain lion that is attacking a domestic dog. The law does not mention what may be done if any animals other than dogs or livestock are attacked.

Depredation Law

Depredation law in Montana is by permit through the State’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The law specifies that within two days of receiving word that game animals are damaging property, the MFWP will investigate the situation. The department will then open a special hunting season, destroy the damage-causing animal, or authorize the property’s owner to destroy the animal.

Owners of domestic animals are required to take certain steps to protect their pets or livestock, including paying a fee to cover the costs of enforcing livestock laws. There is also a government-funded compensation program for losses of domestic animals to mountain lions.


Mountain lions may not be trapped for fur in Montana.


Poaching law in the State of Montana provides some protection of mountain lions in law, but only as a deterrent. It is rare for penalties to be sufficiently harsh to keep poachers from poaching again.

For killing more than one mountain lion in a season, a hunter can be fined between $300 and $1,000, be imprisoned for up to 6 months, and have all their state hunting, fishing, and trapping privileges revoked for 2 years or a longer period imposed by the court. Hunting out of season can result in a fine between $50 and $1,000, imprisonment for up to 6 months, and the revocation of state hunting, fishing, and trapping privileges for a court-determined amount of time.

Road Mortalities

The Montana Department of Transportation does not keep records of mountain lions killed on the State’s roads.


Mountain lions may be kept as pets according to Montana law regarding wild animals kept in captivity.


Help Reduce Montana Mountain Lion Harvest

In 1998, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks raised mountain lion quotas to the highest number of mountain lions ever harvested in one state since bounties were abolished. Montana increased their harvest from 159 lions in 1988 to 776 in 1998.

After much public outcry, in 1997 Montana FWP started a 10-year research project to study how hunting affected mountain lion populations. After radio-collaring 121 individuals (24 females, 11 males, and 86 kittens), the researchers were able to glean information on habitat use, reproduction, mortality, dispersal, and population growth.

FWP’s most significant finding was that hunting has a major effect on mountain lion populations. Project biologist DeSimone explained that “people thought you couldn’t really overhunt lions because the animals were too elusive, but in our study area, we found that hunting is the number one factor affecting mountain lion distribution and abundance.” This research led to improvements in the hunting permit system, but it hasn’t stopped FWP from increasing their harvest rates. FWP needs to heed the warnings from their own biologists as well as the public and downgrade their hunting quotas.

Our best chance to slow the killing is to ask the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to do the right thing and reduce the hunting quota for mountain lions. There is no scientific or biological basis for continuing to hunt mountain lions in such high numbers.

Even more important, write a message to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, asking them to consider your opinions. Please, write today! There is no time to waste.

To contact the commissioners directly go to:

And attend the upcoming commission meetings.

Check back often for Montana’s Action Alerts!


Coming soon!


Mountain Lion Files Sorted by Type

Scientific Research

  • Balkenhol, N., Holbrook, J. D., Onorato, D., Zager, P., White, C., & Waits, L. P. (2014). A multi-method approach for analyzing hierarchical genetic structures: A case study with cougars Puma concolor. Ecography, 37(6), 552–563.
  • Choate, D. (2009). Cougar-Induced Behavioral Plasticity, (July).
  • Fish, M., Division, W., Aid, F., Wildlife, I., & Report, F. (n.d.). T he G arnet R ange M ountain L ion S tudy.
  • Gara, B. W. O., & Harris, R. B. (2015). BY OF DEER KILLED AGE AND CONDITION AND AUTOMOBILES, 52(2), 316–320.
  • Gese, E. M. (2015). Comparative Patterns Wolves Recolonizing of in Predation Montana â€TM s and by Cougars, 71(4), 1098–1106.
  • Harris, N. C., Pletscher, D. H., & Thompson, M. (2004). Cause-specific Mortality of Rocky Mountain Elk Calves in Westcentral Montana, 2001(Zager 2001), 339–347.
  • Hornocker, M. G., Craighead, J. J., & Pfeiffer, E. W. (2015). CHLORIDE AND PENTOBARBITAL, 29(4), 880–883.
  • Kunkel, K. E., Atwood, T. C., Ruth, T. K., Pletscher, D. H., & Hornocker, M. G. (2013). Assessing wolves and cougars as conservation surrogates, 16(2001), 32–40.
  • Kunkel, K. E., Ruth, T. K., Pletscher, D. H., & Hornocker, M. G. (2015). BY WOLVES AND COUGARS IN AND WINTER PREY SELECTION NEAR GLACIER NATIONAL, 63(3), 901–910.
  • Mech, L. D., White, P. J., & Sargeant, G. A. (2015). Survival of adult female elk in Yellowstone following wolf restoration, 70(5), 1372–1378.
  • Murphy, K. M., Felzien, G. S., Hornocker, M. G., & Ruth, T. K. (2015). COMPETITION ENCOUNTER BETWEEN BEARS AND COUGARS?: SOME ECOLOGICAL, 10(July 1995), 55–60.
  • Onorato, D., Desimone, R., White, C., Waits, L. P., Desimone, R., & Waits, L. P. (2015). The Journal of Wildlife Management, 75(2), 378–384.
  • Pletscher, D. H. (2015). SPECIES-SPECIFIC DYNAMICS OF CERVIDS IN A ECOSYSTEM, 63(4), 1082–1093.
  • Riley, S. J., & Malecki, R. A. (2001). A Landscape Analysis of Cougar Distribution and Abundance in Montana , USA, 28(3), 317–323.
  • Riley, S. J., Decker, D. J., Riley, S. J., & Decker, D. J. (2015). Camivore Mamt Issues CAPACITY Wildlife stakeholder acceptance capacity for cougars in Montana, 28(4), 931–939.
  • Robinson, H. S., Ruth, T., Gude, J. A., Choate, D., Desimone, R., Hebblewhite, M., … Williams, J. (2015). Linking resource selection and mortality modeling for population estimation of mountain lions in Montana. Ecological Modelling, 312, 11–25.
  • Robinson, H. S., St, W., York, N., & Cooperative, M. (2014). A Test of the Compensatory Mortality Hypothesis in Mountain Lions?: A Management Experiment in West-Central Montana, 78(5), 791–807.
  • Russell, R. E., Royle, J. A., Desimone, R., Michael, K., Edwards, V. L., Pilgrim, K. P., & Mckelvey, K. S. (2016). Estimating Abundance of Mountain Lions From Unstructured Spatial Sampling, 76(8), 1551–1561.
  • Russell, R. E., Royle, J. A., Desimone, R., Michael, K., Edwards, V. L., Pilgrim, K. P., … Mountain, R. (2015). Linked references are available on JSTOR for this article?: Abundance of Mountain Estimating From Unstructured Spatial Sampling, 76(8), 1551–1561.
  • White, G. C. (2015). Survival and Cause-Specific Mortality of Male Mule Deer Under Different Hunting Regulations in the Bridger Mountains , Montana, 71(3), 816–827.
  • Williams, S., & Williams, J. S. (1992). Abstract?:
  • Young, J. H., Tewes, M. E., Haines, A. M., & Demaso, S. J. (1894). Survival and Mortality of Cougars in the Trans-Pecos Region Your use of this PDF , the BioOne Web site , and all posted and associated content, 55(3), 411–418.

Agency Reports

  • MTFWP. (n.d.). Bear Spray Successfully Deterred a Mountain Lion.


  • Court. (1997). No. 96-551, (96).
  • Senate. (2011). Montana Conservation Issue Legislative Hotlist Montana Conservation Issue Legislative Hotlist.
  • Senate. (2011). Senate Bill No. 395, (2), 1-10.


  • News. (2015). MLF Online News Nov 11 2015.