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Sports >  Outdoors

Idaho Fish and Game may lift cougar hunt limits. Some hunters call it ‘war’ on cats.

UPDATED: Wed., March 17, 2021

A GPS-collared cougar reacts to hounds Feb. 25, 2020, near Colville.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A GPS-collared cougar reacts to hounds Feb. 25, 2020, near Colville. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Nicole Blanchard Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Several of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s latest big game season proposals have prompted concern from hunters who say the agency has declared war on mountain lions, or cougars, and threatened their populations by expanding hunting opportunities.

The Fish and Game Commission is weighing dozens of changes to big game hunting rules across the state, affecting everything from deer and elk hunts to wolf and bear hunts. A handful of alterations to mountain lion hunting rules caught the attention of houndsmen, hunters who use hound dogs to track and tree game animals.

In several hunting units across the state, Fish and Game proposed lifting quotas on female mountain lions. Several hunting units have a cap on how many female lions can be killed in a single season. When that quota is met, hunters can take only male lions for the remainder of the season.

Nick Muckerman, a houndsman from Inkom in eastern Idaho, said he was “shocked” when he first saw the proposals.

“I think it puts lion populations in danger in certain areas,” said Muckerman, a member of the East Idaho Houndsman Association. “I don’t feel like it’s management. It’s more like trying to whittle them down to a small number.”

Fish and Game officials said removing the quotas will help make mountain lion rules more consistent across the state – although some hunting units will still have quotas – and will act as a check on a thriving predator population.

Fish and Game says rules won’t harm mountain lion population

Hound hunters are the primary harvesters of mountain lions in Idaho, Fish and Game predator biologist Katie Oelrich said in a public meeting on the proposals on Feb. 25.

Even though removing quotas could mean more harvest opportunities for houndsmen like Muckerman, he said he worries that removing limits will encourage overkill in some parts of Idaho. And if the wild cats are fewer and harder to find, it could put a damper on the sport.

“As houndsmen, it seems like a paradox that I wouldn’t want to kill an unlimited number of cats,” Muckerman said. “Most houndsmen aren’t killing that many cats. They’re taking a picture (of a treed mountain lion) and working their dogs and letting them go.”

But Fish and Game officials say the removal of the quota doesn’t mean hunters can take unlimited quarry. Fish and Game would maintain existing quotas on female mountain lion harvests in small number of hunting units, and it would continue to track kills in units where it proposes removing the quotas. Hunters would still be required to report a kill within 10 days, allowing the agency to put the brakes on a season if signs begin to point to overharvest.

“There are houndsmen that would prefer those quotas stay there,” said Craig White, Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Region supervisor. “They think it’s insurance that lions won’t be overexploited. But we’re not going to overexploit the cats.”

Hound hunters have led the pushback. The southwest Idaho-based Idaho Houndsmen Association put out a call to action on its Facebook page last month, urging members to leave public comments with Fish and Game to oppose the quota removals.

Like Muckerman, other members of the East Idaho Houndsman Association have been outspoken with their concerns. Jesse Vanleuven, president, said most of his members oppose the changes.

“We’re predator hunters. It’s what we do, but at the same time we don’t want to see them all get shot out,” Vanleuven said. “We want to keep the sport alive, and we want to see that for the next generations. That’s what we’re fighting for.”

During a Fish and Game Q&A last month, Oelrich said data from across the state shows fairly comparable female mountain lion harvests in hunting units across the state, regardless of quotas.

Oelrich did not return requests for comment. In an email, Fish and Game spokesperson Roger Phillips said that in many of the hunt units where the proposals would remove quotas, the limits have not been reached for many years.

White said several hunting units in his region would see their female mountain lion quotas lifted, and he thinks that will prove beneficial. In the Wood River Valley, where residents of Hailey, Ketchum and Bellevue have seen an uptick in run-ins with the predators over the past year, removing quotas could help thin out the population and reduce conflicts with humans and pets.

“We’re a little bit worried about how familiar some of those lions are becoming in the Wood River Valley with people,” White said in a phone interview.

White said it’s difficult to please all of Idaho’s hunters, and he’s heard plenty of concerns from hound hunters over these proposals. Phillips said the agency received tens of thousands of comments on its proposals before the public comment period closed on Feb. 25.

The Fish and Game Commission will decide on season setting during its Thursday meeting.

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