top of page

Cougars

Objective: We are working together with businesses, landowners, and local organizations to implement well-established strategies aimed at safeguarding the well-being of humans, livestock, biodiverse wildlife including predators, tourism, and our hunting traditions. These efforts play a crucial role in supporting our thriving tourism-based economy.

 

On June 8th, 2023, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) commissioners made a decision to try and decrease lion populations by 40% in Lion Management Units (LMU) 314 and 317 in Park County. This decision came about after Commissioner Tabor submitted a last-minute amendment. Unfortunately, the public was not provided with any prior information regarding this change, despite the fact that two special interest groups had been quietly advocating for a 40% reduction in our area. To do this, they actually effectively increased quotas by 75% in 317 and 120% in 314. No explanation or supporting data was presented to justify such a significant increase in the quota.

When no one can give a clear explanation as to a decision, it's probably worth sitting down together and talking about it.

 

So, our good-faith recommendation is that some time be set aside for Region 3's FWP representatives to explain their reasoning to the local public re: the rationale and supporting data to reduce lion populations by 40% in our are. We think it would be good to have multiple stakeholder groups present, with ground rules to respect differing opinions.

  1. During this meeting, it would be helpful to understand the rationale used to increase quotas in 314 and 317...both social factors and scientific factors.

  2. It would be helpful to hear from the biologists themselves as to what they know (a) about the lion population in 314 and 317, and (b) how will they prove that this increase in lion quotas was successful or not when mule deer populations go UP or DOWN or stay STEADY.

  3. Furthermore, we believe it is essential to discuss the significance of our local economy's dependence on a diverse range of wildlife, including predators, and how the commissioners "weigh" varying social factors. Are there any social scientists who can speak to this topic? 

  4. Lastly, we would like to hear about the ecological services that predators provide on the landscape (e.g. controlling ungulate populations and disease spreading to livestock). In other words, are there any negative impacts that could arise from this quota that might impact the ranching community and brucellosis or CWD transmission from ungulates?

 

To express your opinion on this matter, we encourage you to email Susan Kirby-Brookes, your Region 3 commissioner, at commissionerregion3@mtfwp.org. In your email, kindly inquire about the information she is using in our area to support the notion that cougars are affecting ungulate populations, and that it would be helpful for our community to have the biologists explain what this increased quota will actually do for wildlife in our tourism-centric area. Commissioner Brookes has always been willing to engage with Wild Livelhoods and we believe she will engage with your logical questions and opinions if you offer them.

CP7A2584.jpg

Quotas, Cougars, Ungulates and Jobs: Time for Thoughtful Discussions

We are a business coalition comprising more than 160 local businesses located north of Yellowstone National Park. Our livelihoods rely on the preservation of natural areas. Our coalition consists of local community business owners who contribute taxes and share a common belief in the importance of maintaining the wildness of the Greater Yellowstone region for the sake of our livelihoods. Tourism is a 1/2 billion dollar annual industry to Park County and multiple survey, including the state's Department of Commerce, show that wildlife watching is the #1 activity in our area. Literally hundreds of local mom and pop businesses depend upon that tourism economy. FWP's charter is to maintain sustainable wildlife populations for all of the public. Furthermore, FWP on average recieves over $200,000 annually from Park County bed taxes and now imposes a tax (which we support) on non-fishing recreational users of our waterways. Hunting and fishing are not the only ways FWP is funded.

The dominance of wildlife watching to the local economy is undisputable. Furthermore, predators are highly valued attractions and drive business demand. In Montana alone, opportunities to view wild wolves generate over $83 million annually. While elk and bison also attract visitors, people prefer to experience a diverse and wild habitat that showcases the full spectrum of what nature has to offer.

On June 8th 2023 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) commissioners voted to increase cougar quotas by 40% in LMU (Lion Management Units) 314 and 317 in Park County, after an amendment was submitted by Commissioner Tabor the night before. No prior information was provided to the public, even though two state-wide special interest groups had pushed behind the scenes for a 40% reduction in our area. Watch the commission meeting here at time 2:33:00 in to the video: Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission June Meeting - YouTube.

In response, local houndsmen, who have a vested interest in making sure we have sustainable cougar populations to hunt and experience, along with Wild Livelihoods rationally and unemotionally argued against this special interest recommendation for a 40% reduction, which never came to public light until the night before the commissioner meeting. The only rationale for why we need a 40% reduction in cougars in our area by the commissioners (but not by the biologists!) was that ungulate populations are being impacted by cougar populations. That may be true in Region 1, but in Park County Region 3 areas the simple question remains: "Which species of ungulates has a decrease in population due to cougars?" It was "hinted at" by some special interest groups (but not stated at the FWP June 8th meeting) that mule deer populations were a concern. But no data was provided as to the causal connection between cougars and mule deer numbers. Why? Commissioner Walsh made a common-sense request for better data on ungulate numbers where cougar quotas were being changed.

 

The biologists have provided no data to the public that this 3 year mule deer decline is caused by "cougars". At one point, we were told by our Region 3 commissioner that none of the local biologists are claiming that cougars are impacting mule deer population. Now apparently there is some causal connection between cougars and mule deer? We don't oppose cougar quotas, but we expect them to be made with business-like acumen when they are turned in to policy that impacts all uses of wildlife, including catch/kill and catch/photo/release. 

Wild Livelihoods business coalition agrees with some of the most skilled houndsmen in our region, many of whom are part of the Montana State Houndsmen Association, who oppose this other "coalition's" recommendation. Houndsmen have a right to hunt or "catch and release" and "catch and kill" sustainable numbers of cougars, just as mule deer hunters have a right to pursue their prey. Likewise, wildlife enthusiasts have a right to scientifically determined quotas that maintain sustainable populations for the public who pays money and drives our local tourism economy. Moreover, many ranchers in the area are against increasing the elk population due to the additional burden of vaccinating against brucellosis, a disease transmitted by elk in our region. A long term study of cougar predation in our area shows that elk are a preferred prey of choice. Managing predator populations at balanced levels, where the predator-prey relationship maintains a natural equilibrium OVER timescales, is a cost-effective and non-taxpayer-dependent way of managing elk populations. 

Most importantly, how will FWP prove whether this changed quota "test" is successful, or if it is not successful in increasing mule deer populations? How do we measure success? If the population goes up is that success? What if the population goes up AND the lion population goes up? Is that success? What if elk population numbers increase and the risk of disease spread to cattle goes up?

In other words, radical changes to quotas can also backfire. In light of the risks, we simply want to know the rational steps taken to increase the quota in 314 and 317 by 40%. We ask FWP Commission to utilize data collected by the Lion Ecoregional Planning Objective Committee to assess population trends and establish quotas. We encourage them to continue this practice. Quotas should be based on accurate population data and should take into account the economic and social interests of all stakeholders within their respective regions.

Ultimately, there is plenty of common ground here. This does not have to be a zero-sum game. Wild Livelihoods business members are doing actual, boots-on-the-ground work on behalf of these ungulates' long-term viability in Paradise Valley and the Gardiner Basin. Some examples include:

  1. "Payment for Presence" (elk and livestock co-existence strategies)

  2. Wildlife friendly fencing

  3. Sub-division regulations and voluntary conservation easements to protect mule deer and pronghorn migration paths

  4. Yellowstone Safe Passage (highway underpasses for wildlife) - Did you know that over the course of 11.5 years (2012 to current) we have collected 845 dead mule deer between Livingston and Gardiner?

  5. Weed Management

  6. Drought Planning

 

Let's get to work as a community improving wildlife habitat for all...hunter and non-hunter alike. Habitat fragmentation is the long-term threat to mule deer, sheep, and pronghorn numbers in our area. We encourage any special interest group to actually show up at local conservation meetings (or invite us to yours) and get to work on actual projects to improve ungulate habitat, while supporting our tourism and ranching community as they deal with the costs of running businesses in the Greater Yellowstone while others get the benefit of Yellowstone National Park and all of the ungulates they send across their borders to outfitters and hunters alike. At a bare minimum, let's work together to uncover the actual data about cougar population numbers in LMU's 313, 314, and 317 and their predation rate on ungulates AS WELL AS all other causes on mule deer population decreases so that multi-pronged approach can be taken to conserve them. Only then can a genuine debate begin over the "right" number of cougars and one that considers all social interests, including those of the customers who visit us and pay us money to see predators on the landscape. 

Economic Risk

As visitors to southwestern Montana start to voice their opinion regarding how Montana wants to manage wildlife (including carnivores), they are making it clear as to if they want to spend their money here. ​Here are a few economic highlights with respect to recreational tourism in our area (for more data, see here) and the impact that wild places have on it.

  • One and only year-round driving entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

  • 22% of all labor income fueled by travel, tourism and recreation.

  • Park County alone generates roughly $500,000,000 in tourism revenue annually. To put that in perspective, all of Park County's annual agricultural revenue runs at about $34,000,000 ($24m in livestock and $10m in crops). Based on the 2021 estimated predation losses (of all kinds), less than .075 percent of that revenue was lost to predation.

  • Lodging/accommodation wages and revenue are the largest economic category in our region. Lodging tax revenue for Park County, driven in large part to Yellowstone National Park visitation, in 2021 generated almost $3,400,000 for Montana's general fund, various heritage programs and recreational use programs, including FWP. 

  • Small business proprietors (or self-employment) represents a significant portion of all employment in Park County, accounting for 39% of all jobs in 2014.  This has grown over the last decade from about one-third of all jobs before 2000 and this growth has been entirely among non-farm proprietors.  Statewide in Montana proprietors accounted for 27% of all jobs in 2014, up only slightly from 26% in 2000. 

  • A 2017 survey of non-resident tourists visiting Montana shows the time spent on various activities ranked as:

    • 56% Scenic driving

    • 36% Day hiking

    • 34% Wildlife watching

    • 29% Nature photography

    • 26% Camping

    • 24% Recreational shopping

    • 19% Visiting other historical sites

    • 17% Visiting local brewery

    • 12% Visiting museums

    • 12% Visiting Lewis & Clark sites

    • 9% Fishing / Fly Fishing

  • As the rate of tourism goes up or down, which business/retail categories categories are impacted the most (ranked in descending order according to the State Department of Commerce expenditure categories):

    • Gasoline Outlets (e.g. Town Pump)

    • Restaurant & Bars

    • Hotel & Motel

    • Outfitter & Guides

    • Retail Sales

    • Grocery Stores

    • Auto Rentals

    • Rental Lodging

    • Campground & RV Parks

    • Vehicle Repairs

bottom of page