Local lion population healthy
Area hunters contribute to conservation efforts statewide and in YNP
Levinski Ridge rises from the east bank of the Gallatin River near the intersection of Highways 191 and 64. It’s adjacent to the Gallatin Wildlife Management Area and mountain lion hunter Ross Feenstra said it’s home to a healthy population of cats. So when drivers are stopped at the light by the Conoco, gazing across the river at the cliffs and outcroppings on Levinski Ridge, they’re staring into prime lion habitat.
Sometimes Feenstra covers his boots with plastic trash bags and slogs across the Gallatin to begin a hunt almost within shouting distance of the Lone Perk coffee hut. He also tracks cougars on the open slopes above Big Sky’s holding ponds near Meadow Village.
“It’s a very stable population,” said Feenstra. “There are quite a few cats that live between Deer Creek and Dudley Creek. And on that front face where the water treatment facility is.”
Feenstra said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks sets high quotas in the hunting district running from Deer Creek to Dudley Creek because wildlife managers worry too many lions in the area will eat too many bighorn sheep, so the high quotas are meant to keep sheep and cat numbers in balance.
“Honestly, that quota will never get filled,” said Feenstra, who lives in Gallatin Gateway. “That’s a sheep unit. They put the lions at x amount to get hunters into that area.”
It’s known as mountain lion district 311 and this year the quota was set at seven cats. As of April 11, only two were harvested. That’s partially because the area is steep, mostly roadless and difficult to hunt. Feenstra took one cat this year out of the nearby Asbestos Creek drainage with help from Josiah Funk, who lives in the Paradise Valley.
Funk is president and Feenstra is chairman of the Montana Houndsmen Association. They were part of a group of hunters and biologists who gathered on March 22 in Three Forks for a mountain lion state-of-the-union discussion about the overall health of the species in Montana. Takeaways from the meeting were mostly positive, said Funk.
“The houndsmen seem to be happy with the number of cats. Everybody was pretty happy except for some guys in the Elkhorns,” explained Funk, recalling concerns raised by hunters living in the Boulder area. “Some guys in the Elkhorns think there aren’t as many lions as there should be.”
Houndsmen generally measure success by how many days it takes to tree a lion while tracking it with dogs. In the Elkhorns, said Funk, it took local hunters 30 days to tree five cats. By comparison, around the Paradise Valley, Funk caught 23 lions in 40 days.
“I’m mostly treeing cats and taking pictures,” said Funk. “We harvested a few big cats out of this country. Those big old toms are hard on elk and hard on kittens.”
Feedback gathered at the March 22 meeting between biologists and lion hunters will help inform the forthcoming statewide mountain lion management plan, which FWP plans to release for public comment in August.
Andrea Jones, information and education program manager for FWP, said houndsmen bring first-hand knowledge of what’s happening with cats and that’s valuable to wildlife managers.
“Our biologists can’t be everywhere,” said Jones. “And while we fly every winter looking for deer and elk and we note the animals we observe incidentally, having the extra eyes and ears on the ground from houndsmen provides invaluable information.”
Feenstra said there are solid lion numbers up and down the Gallatin Canyon, from Storm Castle to Red Cliff and Buck Ridge. Up Swan Creek, said Feenstra, there’s also a healthy number of bobcats and moose. And at the top of the Taylor Fork drainage, in a big stand of fire-killed trees, hunters are seeing lynx tracks.
“There’s been quite a few people who’ve seen it,” said Feenstra. “Cat tracks way high up. There’s a family of lynx for sure in that old burn.”
Feenstra and his regular hunting partner Joe Beebout explored the forest and burn areas up Storm Castle April 8, following an overnight blanketing of wet snow. They arrived at the trailhead early, then after treeing one lion, raced out around noon as the snow turned to mud along the gated Forest Service road leading out of the backcountry.