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Mountain lion hunters across Montana criticized increased harvest quotas presented at the Fish, Wildlife and Parks meeting Thursday in Helena. The agency relied on its own recent population study to propose raised quotas for the next two seasons, but hunters say wildlife officials overestimated the number of big cats and set quotas too high for the Bitterroot Watershed.

The changes on the table currently involve raising quotas in 37 hunting districts as well as in the entire Region 7 in southeastern Montana, reports the Missoulian. This would allow an overall additional 37 lions to be killed. Officials would lower quotas by four lions in just two districts in northwestern Montana.

The Montana FWP is using population estimates from its recent DNA-based study to reevaluate lion harvest quotas for the upcoming seasons. Researchers estimated 167 mountain lions inhabited the southern Bitterroot region, according to a Missoulian article published in January. That’s two times the number researchers expected.

Declining elk herds in the Bitterroot area have posed a major concern and many have blamed predation by lions, bears, and wolves as the leading cause. In response to a different FWP study demonstrating mountain lions killed more collared elk calves than other predators combined officials opened up the Bitterroot Watershed to anyone with a lion tag during the second half of this past season. That was an expansion from allowing access only to hunters with specific Bitterroot hunting district permits. FWP also increased the region’s lion quota.

Some hunters at the meeting say this policy change brought a flood of hunters from outside the region. They also point out too many young lions were killed to satisfy clients hunting with outfitters. Hunters familiar with the Bitterroot range say few big cats remain in the area and increased hunting pressure is a bad call.

Montana FWP said it liberalized harvests in the Bitterroot Watershed to help achieve its goal of reducing the region’s big cat population by 30 percent during a three year period. One main purpose of the plan is to reduce elk calf mortality, according to the FWP lion progress report released earlier this year. The study in question is still under peer review and scheduled for publication in a scientific journal this year.

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