HAMILTON — Responding to initial findings of an elk predator study in the West Fork of the Bitterroot Valley, state game managers have recommended increasing the harvest of mountain lions there this winter to take pressure off elk calves born in the spring.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission gave preliminary approval to a proposal to increase mountain lion permits in Hunting District 250 from 20 to 30 at its meeting Thursday.
The commission will accept comments on the proposal over the next 30 days before making a final decision at its Feb. 16 regular meeting.
State wildlife managers are concerned about the decline in the West Fork of the Bitterroot elk herd, where numbers have dropped from nearly 2,000 animals in 2005 to about 800 last spring.
Researchers captured and tagged elk calves in both the east and west forks of the Bitterroot starting last spring, hoping to document what's killing the young animals as part of a major three-year elk study.
So far, mountain lions have been the main source of calf mortality, although biologists believe wolves will have a larger impact through the winter months. Through Jan. 4, mountain lions killed 13 of the tagged elk calves, black bears killed four and wolves two.
FWP Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson said the proposal to increase the lion harvest is a direct result of the ongoing research in the Bitterroot.
"It was always the idea to try and put the results of the research to work as they come in," Thompson said. "We're not interested in just observing and documenting. We're interested in implementing and managing."
If the proposal is given final approval and the additional lions are killed, Thompson said researchers will be able to document any changes in elk calf survival this spring.
"You almost never get that kind of opportunity," he said.
Since 2008, the mountain lion hunt in west-central and northwest Montana has been limited to special-permit holders.
Each hunting district has a quota of permits. Typically, somewhere between 40 percent to 50 percent of those permit holders are successful in killing a mountain lion.
Thompson said a member of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association told commissioners Thursday that organization would like the commission to consider allowing general license holders a chance to kill the 10 additional lions offered in the special hunt to ensure the predators are actually killed.
The commissioners replied that was exactly the type of comments they want to hear between now and their next regular meeting, Thompson said.
The department is recommending a change in the mountain lion season next year in an effort to increase the number of animals actually killed. The proposal calls for a hybrid season that would divide the hunt between special permit holders and general licensees to meet demand for a quality hunt and the need for meeting quotas to reduce predator numbers. The commission will make that decision later this year as part of its regular season-setting process.