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Keeping cats in check

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Hikers and mountain bikers entering the Rattlesnake are now sharing their recreation area with houndsmen and mountain lion hunters. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the limited hunt helps keep cat populations in the Missoula area at levels “compatible with outdoor recreational desires, and that minimize human-lion conflicts.”

The season began Dec. 8, one week after the statewide winter mountain lion hunting season began, as well as one week after an Oregon-based wildlife protection group launched a campaign to end cat hunting in Montana.

Calling cougar pursuit “scientifically indefensible and unnecessary,” Big Wildlife spokesman Brian Vincent cites a recent Washington State University report claiming that hunting lions creates “social chaos,” allowing “young hooligans to run wild.” He says hunters disrupt established feline social structures by targeting the largest males, or toms, and this leads to conflict.

“Montana officials should place emphasis on educating the public about living harmoniously with cougars,” says Vincent.

We should, and we do, says Mike Thompson, FWP’s regional wildlife manager.

“Concerted efforts are made by FWP to educate the public about ways to reduce their risks of living in lion country,” he says.

At the same time, by maintaining high lion quotas in the Missoula area, hunters keep the nearby cat population in check. State-wide, hunters took 350 lions last year, including three during the Rattlesnake hunt.

Historically, mountain lions have been killed indiscriminately, and bounties were offered for dead cats until 1962. Lions are currently classified as a huntable species, a status that protects habitat and assures that cats are managed to fit within social and sustainability goals.

The Rattlesnake hunt was permitted after local lion populations exploded—along with complaints, encounters and maulings—in the 1980s. In 1989, a boy was killed near Evaro Hill. In 1998 another survived an attack in Marshall Canyon.

Although Big Wildlife’s petition comes 10 years after the Rattlesnake hunt began, FWP has seemingly already addressed many of the group’s concerns. For instance, in regards to only targeting the largest males, the Rattlesnake hunt allows only non-lactating females and sub-adults to be harvested.

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