When game wardens shot a mountain lion near downtown Helena last Wednesday, it struck a nerve with many who questioned why the animal was not tranquilized or trapped and relocated.
Subsequent online comments, emails and phone calls from Independent Record readers weighed mostly against the lethal removal, although many who responded also felt the actions appropriate given the mountain lion’s location near an office building and two city parks. Questions ranged from challenging the threat the lion posed to the policy that calls for removing them lethally.
Game Warden Sgt. Justin Hawkaluk said that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ policy dictated that the lion be removed due to it entering an urban area and its proximity to two parks and a daycare.
“Concerns for public safety were paramount in this case and the only option was lethal removal,” Hawkaluk said.
While state officials believe the potential threat of the lion would warrant lethal removal regardless of their relocation policy, FWP like many wildlife agencies in the West, has a longstanding policy against relocating mountain lions regardless of public safety risk.
“Mountain lions shall not be captured and translocated under any circumstances,” according to Montana’s Mountain Lion Management Strategy.
Biologist Jay Kolbe of White Sulphur Springs wrote the strategy, which was adopted earlier this year. Continuation of the non-relocation policy was based on the best information wildlife managers have available, he said.
Non-relocation is based on two factors. The first that mountain lions that enter urban areas and threaten people or animals have a higher likelihood of doing it again. Second, given their territoriality, lions that have been relocated tend to die at high rates from conflicts with resident mountain lions or other stresses.
“It’s been a settled issue as far as the research goes,” Kolbe said.
Both studies from the 1990s as well as those ongoing in Canada have produced “mixed results,” when it comes to relocating lions, he said.
“Some lions are translocated and you never hear from them again, but they have a higher rate of recidivism you would say,” Kolbe said.
Montana’s lion management plan cites a 1998 New Mexico study as support for the policy. The study, “Evaluating Cougar Translocation in New Mexico,” published by The Wildlife Society journal, documents the behaviors of 14 mountain lions captured and relocated. Researchers looked at the differences between ages and sex in determining the propensity to travel as well as mortality.
Messages left for the study’s lead author Toni Ruth were not returned in time for this story.
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Nine of the 14 animals in the study died over a two-year period. Five of those deaths – two females and three males – were killed by other mountain lions. Two males traveled back to the area where they were originally trapped.
“The outcome of cougar translocation seems influenced by the sex, age, and social status of the individual prior to translocation,” the study says.
The study notes that stress from relocation is a suspected factor in higher mortality rates than resident mountain lions because the majority of animals died in the second year after release. And older animals had the highest mortality rates or returned to their capture areas.
Human-caused deaths were lower than researchers anticipated, as no mountain lions were killed by hunters and only one died after being struck by a vehicle.
The study concluded that mountain lions from 12 and 27 months old, that have not had histories of conflicts with humans or preying on livestock or pets, present the best animals for reintroductions or augmentations of existing populations. Females would likely be the most successful as they had a higher survival rate, the study said.
Montana is far from the only state that with a policy against relocating mountain lions.
“Moving problem mountain lions is not an option,” according the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It causes deadly territorial conflicts with other mountain lions already there. Or the relocated mountain lion returns.”
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had a similar response after backlash for killing a mountain lion in Portland.
"ODFW does not relocate cougars, as relocation would create territorial conflicts among existing cougar populations and could also spread disease," the department told the Oregonian.
Other states seem to handle the fate of mountain lions on a more case-by-case basis.
“Wildlife offices throughout Washington respond to cougar sightings when there is a threat to public safety or property. Cougars involved in human conflict may be live-trapped by trained fish and wildlife personnel and moved to more remote areas, or removed,” according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Colorado and Idaho will also relocate mountain lions in some circumstances.