DOW looks at mountain lion study

Russell Smyth
Montrose Daily Press

MONTROSE – Colorado Division of Wildlife officials discussed a proposal Monday night to conduct the state’s most extensive mountain lion study to date.

The proposed 10-year study would improve the Division of Wildlife’s ability to manage hunting based on sound scientific information, increase the DOW’s understanding of lions’ habitat needs, create a better picture of the predator’s ecological relationship to prey species such as mule deer and study lion-human interactions, said Ken Logan, a DOW carnivore researcher based in Montrose.

“The main objective is to get some reliable scientific information on lions,” Logan told the sparsely attended public meeting at the Delta-Montrose Electric Association’s conference room.

The Colorado Wildlife Commission, which sets policies for the DOW, is slated to consider the proposal during the wildlife commissioners’ Sept. 9-10 meeting in Durango, Logan said.

DOW officials propose to conduct the lion study in the southern parts of Game Management Units 61 and 62, which generally extend west from Montrose and cover the southern part of the Uncompahgre Plateau, according to the Draft Mountain Lion Data Analysis Unit L-22 Management Plan. The proposed study, which would cover more than 900 square miles, also would include about 60 square miles of Game Management Unit 70 in Data Analysis L-23 around Norwood, Nucla and Naturita.

The study proposes to close all mountain lion hunting and pursuit from Nov. 11, 2004, to March 31, 2009, in the research area, according to the draft management plan. Additionally, the DOW would close all of Game Management Units 61 and 62 to the sport harvest of collared or ear-tagged lions from the study. Beginning in 2010, the DOW would allow a liberal lion harvest.

“What we are asking the commission for is permission to close lion hunting for five years so the population can increase,” Logan told the 15 people other than DOW employees who attended Monday night’s meeting. “Any lions in the study area would be protected. Tagged lions in the buffer area would be protected. Then in years six through 10 hunters would come back in and take the population down.”

Shan Foster, a lion hunter who lives in the proposed study area, asked Logan what the study would provide that the DOW does not know from previous research.

The type of study the DOW is proposing has not been conducted anywhere else, Logan said. The research would provide the DOW with techniques that wildlife officials could use to estimate lion populations in different areas of Colorado and understand how hunting management practices affect those populations.

“It’s going to be different in the sense that for the first time we are going to see if we can invent the wheel,” Logan said.

The study will take away lion hunters’ ability to pursue the big cats in the research area, Foster said.

“I’ve hunted lions for about five years with hounds, and I don’t understand why you’re taking those rights away,” he said.

Logan said 80 percent of the guides and hunters he has spoken to support the research.

Hunters could lose their right to pursue lions in all of Colorado if the DOW does not conduct the research, said Bruce Watkins, senior terrestrial biologist for the DOW’s Southwest Region.

The Boulder-based environmental group Sinapu has told DOW officials it will file a state ballot initiative on lion hunting if the wildlife agency fails to provide better scientific information about lions, Watkins said. Sinapu’s action prompted the DOW to propose the lion study.

“The writing is on the wall from groups like Sinapu,” Watkins said. “Unless we can base our (hunting management) on more scientific information – if we can’t do that, Sinapu has indicated they are going to shut down lion hunting in the state of Colorado.”

Dick Steele, a Delta-area veterinarian and sportsman’s advocate, worried that increasing lion populations during the study’s first five years would hurt the Uncompahgre Plateau’s mule deer population.

Declining mule deer populations have concerned wildlife managers in Colorado and other Western states, and the DOW has conducted some of its most extensive deer research on the Uncompahgre Plateau. The DOW also limited deer hunting beginning in 1999 – a decision that many hunters supported.

“We’ve fought long and hard to bring our deer population back, and we’re a little concerned,” Steele said.

The impact lions have on the deer population concerns many people, Watkins said.

“A lot of people assume the lion population limits the deer population on the Uncompahgre Plateau,” he said.

DOW researchers have radio-collared and tracked more than 1,200 mule deer does and fawns on the Uncompahgre Plateau since 1997, Watkins said.

“Overall what these studies show is only 3 to 4 percent of these animals are killed by lions,” he said. “We feel that lions are not limiting the deer population on the Uncompahgre Plateau.”

Although the study will not allow hunting during the first five years, it will not prevent wildlife officers from killing lions that prey on livestock, according to the draft management plan. Officials will manage any lion from the study that is preying on livestock on a case-by-case basis.

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