Sunday, January 15, 2006

200 hunters show up to protect their cougar killing rights

Hunters flock to Fish, Wildlife and Parks annual hunting regulations hearing

Tim Chandler drove two hours from Heron to attend Saturday’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks hearing on hunting regulations. And he wasn’t alone.

About 200 hunters attended the hearing at the WestCoast Kalispell Center Hotel, many of them traveling from Libby, Rexford, Thompson Falls, Noxon or Trout Creek. And there was no shortage of opinions on proposed regulation changes for the 2006 hunting season.

“I came just for the lion part of it,” Chandler said, referring to a controversial proposal to restrict mountain lion hunting to a permit drawing system.

“Hopefully my say-so will make a difference.”

That’s the general purpose of the hearing, which has been held for 11 straight years and has become something of a tradition in Northwest Montana’s Region One. Every year, the hearing attracts hunters who sound off on even slight regulation changes.

“The tradition here has been to try to get as many people to one meeting,” Regional Supervisor Jim Satterfield explained to the crowd. “And the purpose is to let people hear that there are a lot of different perspectives. We think that’s valuable for the public to see that for themselves.”

While there was broad and varied interest Saturday in proposed changes for elk and deer hunting in Region One, there was intense opposition to the lion regulation proposal.

As soon as it came up for comment, about a dozen hunters lined up to speak. And when they finished, more lined up.

All but a handful of the several dozen were adamantly opposed to the change, which was intended to address problems with the current quota system.

Mountain lion quotas are set for each district, and once those are met, the season closes. But in some districts that attract numerous hunters, quotas are quickly filled and sometimes exceeded by hunters in the field who are unaware the quota has been met.

“It is a supply and demand problem,” said regional wildlife manager Jim Williams. The situation has led to an increase in the number of young and more vulnerable mountain lions that are harvested.

This year, hunters killed eight more cats than the allowed quota in Hunting District 100 of the Purcell Mountains.

Hunters who testified Saturday said the proposed drawing for a limited number of permits is a drastic change that will create other problems for lion hunting. They had plenty of alternative suggestions for Satterfield, Williams and Vic Workman, the Region One commissioner of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission who propose the change.

Lion hunters depend on having trained dogs to track cats, and several of the houndsmen who testified Saturday predicted hunters will not continue with the expense of having tracking dogs for a permit that could elude them for years.

That situation will lead to a limited number of houndsmen who will become legal or illegal guides for the hunters who happen to draw lion permits, they said.

“It’s going to be all outfitted, either legally or illegally,” said Will Collins. “Because they are the only ones who are going to have dogs anymore.”

But even outfitters were opposed to the permit system, saying it will impact their businesses.

“I stand to lose a lot of my outfitting business,” said Jeff Smith, an outfitter from Trout Creek.

Other hunters said the permit system would displace Region One houndsmen, prompting them to hunt lions in other parts of the state.

The hunters suggested tightening quotas or issuing lion licenses good only for particular districts to prevent hunters from going from one district to the next as quotas are met. To address the trend of younger cats being harvested, it was suggested having a lion hunting season later in the winter, when older toms tend to roam at lower elevations.

While there was strong resistance to the more restrictive lion hunting proposal, most hunters who testified favored a conservative approach to the region’s deer and elk hunting regulations. There was considerable opposition to a proposal that would open up antlerless deer hunting to an over-the-counter B-tag purchase for Montana residents.

The change is based on Fish, Wildlife and Parks assessments indicated that Northwest Montana deer populations have increased steadily for several years.

But that’s not a trend that can be seen in every hunting district, several hunters said.

Kalispell hunter Warren Illi said deer numbers appear to be down in the Thompson Lakes area where he has long hunted.

“That demonstrates to me that there hasn’t been the kind of recovery that’s been suggested,” he said.

Glen Howell of Libby objected to a “blanket” approach toward deer hunting over such a large and diverse region.

Cecil Noble, a long-time Swan Valley outfitter, said the state should do more to reduce hunting pressure on bucks. If there are areas where whitetail populations are excessive, he suggested, then the state should allow hunters to exchange their single “A” tags for antlered deer for several B-tags for antlerless deer.

Hunters also expressed concerns about regulations that would allow 15 permits for cow elk in the Swan Valley and 15 in the South Fork Flathead River basin.

“I’m still not seeing enough cows, or enough elk in general” to justify cow permits in the Swan Valley, said outfitter Pat Tabor.

A statewide proposal to expand a hunting program that allows youths to harvest cow elk will likely have the effect of increasing the cow harvest in both the Swan and the South Fork, several hunters said.

The proposed change would expand the program’s qualifying ages from 12-14 to 12-17.

Comments on the proposed hunting regulations will be accepted through Jan. 27. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission will meet Feb. 21 in Helena to discuss and approve regulations for 2006.

Written comments can be sent to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Region One, 490 N. Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT, 59901.

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue

an Educational Sanctuary home

to more than 150 big cats

12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625

813.920.4130 fax 885.4457 cell 493.4564

Meet our recent mountain lion cub rescues:

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