In an ideal world, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks would census mountain lion populations each year before setting hunting quotas. With the current tools available, such efforts would be expensive in time and resources. Instead, wildlife managers use a combination of population models and stakeholder desires in order to set their hunting quotas. Montana has some of the highest harvest rates in the country and each year MFWP increases quota limits. Unfortunately, MFWP's explanation for increasing the number of mountain lions that could be shot is not scientifically-based or driven by sound data.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.