Mountain lion numbers are up around most of the West. In fact, Idaho managers are calling one part of their state "cat heaven." Here's where to start your prowl. (January 2007)
Tracking big, solitary cats is much easier with snow on the ground.
Photo by Cathy and Gordon Ilg.
Of all North American big-game animals, the cougar is perhaps the most mysterious, glamorous, and hardest to hunt. Critics of cougar hunting abound. California has outlawed it. But in the rest of the West, mountain lion hunting is alive and well, especially in the Rocky Mountain states.
We took a look at the overall situation and gathered information from various state wildlife agencies to help hunters line up a cougar hunt in 2007.
"The population is doing well and growing," said Rick Winslow, of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. "We have a lot more lions than we thought."
The season started in October and continues through March 30 on public land. There is no season on private land, so hunters can hunt year 'round. In a few locations, the limit is two cougar because of their impact on bighorn sheep. Check with the department before choosing your spot.
In Utah, however, managers said mountain lion numbers are down -- but that's a good thing.
"We lowered cougar populations during the drought years to reduce the impact on our stressed deer herds," said Kevin Brunell, Utah Mammals Program coordinator. "There are still quite a number of cats. We set up our hunting three ways. We have units that are limited-entry, and we have limits that start out being limited-entry, then change, based on the number of lions taken."
The state keeps track of kills through a call-in line and Web site. Harvest numbers are updated daily. Once a unit's optimum quota is reached, the unit closes.
"We don't even try to estimate our lion population," said Dave Moody, Wyoming's Trophy Game coordinator. "The approach we are taking now is to monitor the status of lions through the kill. I think we will see a slight increase in the harvest. It's now around 200 cougar annually."
The season runs from September to March, but the snowy months -- November through January -- are the best for hunting lions.
The state also operates a quota system by hunt units. Wyoming also has a hotline and Web site where hunters can check if a unit is still open. Contrast the unit-by-unit approach used by Utah and Wyoming with that of Nevada and Arizona, which are wide open for cougar hunting.
"Cougars are abundant," said Russ Mason, game bureau chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "Our data shows mountain lions in Nevada as stable to slightly increasing."
Getting a cougar tag in Nevada is an over-the-counter deal, he said. Anybody who wants one can get one.
"Our regulations are as liberal as anywhere in the West. We have places here that unless you have good dogs and a snowmobile, you are going to be chasing them forever. There's abundant opportunity."
"We have a year-round season," said Mark Zornes, Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist.
Arizona doesn't have quotas by game management units, but does have areas where the state has identified harvest objectives, where lion predation is affecting bighorn sheep or deer. Most hunters here either own dogs or hire a houndsman as a guide. But a growing number of hunters are also using predator calls to lure cats within shooting distance.
A lot of the harvest is driven by how much snow falls. Arizona is fairly unique, in that places get good snows above the Mogollon Rim, which cuts the state from the southeast to the northwest. "Above the rim you get snow, but below the rim, you get little or none," said Zornes. "Those small detached mountain ranges in the southeastern part of the state are very good lion country."
"No doubt that Idaho has lots of mountain lions," said Ed Mitchell, public information officer for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "I can't give you exact numbers; they are uncountable in real terms."
They live in our mountains, in the southern deserts, and particularly in the chain of mountains that runs east-west along the Idaho, Nevada and Utah border, Mitchell said.
"That's cat heaven down there. There is a season, but it is a very long one. They are hunted and trapped in Idaho, mostly with dogs. We allow a limited number of non-resident houndsmen to hunt in Idaho. The only way you're ever going to see a cat reliably is with hounds."
In Colorado, the state has implemented a harvest-limit system.
"Our objective is usually smaller than the number of permits, because we know that not all hunters will be successful," said biologist Jerry Atker of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
The annual total of 557 is divided into various game management units. The season runs from mid-November through March 31. Slightly fewer permits are expected to be available.
Atker notes that Colorado has no restrictions on out-of-state houndsmen. "They do have to make sure their dogs have all their shots. A number of houndsmen from Minnesota and Wisconsin like to bring their dogs to Colorado to hunt cougar. We also have a lot of good houndsmen and guides in Colorado whom out-of-state hunters can book."
Colorado is trying to encourage hunters to check the state's Web site for information on how to tell the sex of a treed lion. Starting in the fall 2006 portion of the season, there was a requirement for hunters to take an on-line hunter education class on this, Atker said. In the future, this test is expected to be mandatory.
In 1998, Montana hunters took 776 lions, said research biologist Rich DeSimone of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "We just didn't know what our population really was, and we continued to increase quotas until the numbers declined," he said.
Managers tried to reduce lion numbers, but didn't seem to be seeing results. So they kept increasing the quota year after year. At the same time, they had a huge deer die-off.
"We discovered we had overshot our intended m
ark," said DeSimone. Every year since 1998, they've been reducing the quota. Now, there are about 330 permits available.
DeSimone noted that the state recently passed a bunch of new regulations. "We have a supply-and- demand problem and we are changing."
In northwest Montana, where the majority of permits are distributed, the number of non-resident permits was reduced to 10 percent of the total. In Southwest Montana, they put non-resident hunting on a permit-only basis.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
The following contact information will be helpful in getting a handle on cougar hunting.
€¢ As noted, Arizona's cougar season runs all year. A license is $25.50 for residents, $113.50 for non-residents. Visit www.gf.state.AZ.us, or call (602) 947-3000.
€¢ In New Mexico, the season is Oct. 1 through March 31. Residents pay $43.00, while out-of-state hunters are charged $290.00. Check the Web site www.wildlife.state.NM.us, or call (505) 476-8000.
€¢ Nevada has plenty of over-the-counter cougar tags available. Residents pay $32.00 for a license, and $29.00 for a lion tag. Non-residents pay $142.00. Visit www.NDOW.org, or call the Nevada Department of Wildlife at (775) 688-1500.
€¢ For a lion permit, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources charges residents $29.00 and out-of-state hunters, $154.00. The season is Nov. 22 through June 3.
€¢ Colorado charges non-resident hunters $251.00, while residents pay $41.00. Check wildlife.State.CO.us, or call (303) 297-1192.
€¢ Idaho hunters lay out $12.75 for a license and $11.50 for a cougar tag. Non-residents pay $141.50 for a license, $151.75 for a tag. Check out FishAndGame.Idaho.gov, or call (208) 334-3700.
€¢ For available over-the-counter tags Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks charges residents $19.00 and non-residents $320.00. There is a split season for cougar: Fall 2006 was Oct. 22 through Nov. 26. The winter season runs from Dec. 1 through April 1. Check fwp.MT.gov, or call (406) 444-2535.
€¢ Wyoming charges residents $25.00 and non-residents, $301.00. Check gf.state.WY.us, or call (307) 777-4600 for new regulations.