GARDINER, Mont.– On public land north of Yellowstone National Park late last year, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte shot and killed a mountain lion that was being monitored by National Park Service staff, after hunting dogs had chased it up a tree.
The mountain lion hunt, which has not been previously reported, occurred on Dec. 28 on a swath of U.S. Forest Service land southwest of Emigrant, Montana, according to residents familiar with the episode who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships in the community. Less than a year earlier, Gianforte killed a Yellowstone wolf in a similar area that was wearing a tracking collar, prompting an outcry among environmentalists.
The 5-year-old mountain lion was wearing a GPS-tracking collar that Yellowstone biologists use to monitor the rare and elusive predators. Park staff knew the animal by its research number: M220.
Gianforte’s press secretary, Brooke Stroyke, confirmed on Monday that the governor had hunted the mountain lion. She said he had a valid license, drove the lion up into a tree and shot it on public land.
“The governor and friends tracked the lion on public lands,” Stroyke said in an emailed statement to the Washington Post. “As the group got closer to the lion, members of the group, who have a hound training license, used four hounds to tree the lion once the track was discovered in a creek bottom on public land.”
Stroyke said that after the mountain lion was chased into the tree, Gianforte confirmed it was a male, “harvested it, and put his tag on it,” she said. “He immediately called to report the legal harvest and then the (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks) game warden. In Livingston, the governor met the game warden who tagged the lion and took the collar.”
Some Montanans have raised questions about the tactics employed during the hunt. One person familiar with the incident told the Post that the mountain lion was kept in the tree by the hunting dogs for a couple of hours while Gianforte traveled to the site in the Rock Creek drainage area. In neighboring Wyoming, detaining a mountain lion in a tree until another hunter arrives is illegal.
Stroyke denied that account. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Greg Lemon also said “the idea that the governor just showed up to harvest the animal is not consistent” with what he’s been told.
The hunting site was located close to the Point of Rocks Ranch, where Gianforte trapped and killed the Yellowstone wolf last year. That ranch is owned by Robert E. Smith, who is a co-director of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Maryland-based company that owns or operates nearly 200 local television stations across the country. Smith has donated to Gianforte, a Republican, in the past.
In the wolf hunt, Gianforte was accompanied by the ranch manager, Matt Lumley, who is also vice president of the National Trappers Association. Residents said Lumley was also involved with the lion hunt. He did not respond to requests for comment. Stroyke also did not respond to a question about the governor’s hunting partners.
The February 2021 wolf hunt violated state rules because Gianforte did not take a mandatory trapping certification course before the hunt. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks gave the governor a written warning, and he later said he “made a mistake.”
Conservationists have been outraged by Gianforte’s personal hunting exploits as well as his support of controversial pro-hunting laws that passed last year. One law mandated a cut in the state’s wolf population and prompted regulations freeing up hunters to kill wolves just outside Yellowstone’s boundaries. In the past six months, 25 Yellowstone wolves have been killed – a record for one year – all but six of them in Montana.
“The consequences are severe for wolves,” said Dan Wenk, who was Yellowstone National Park superintendent from 2011 to 2018.
Hunters killed off mountain lions in the park in the 1930s, but the animals moved back in during the 1980s. Park staff monitor the population through satellite GPS collars, remote cameras and genetic surveys. The sophisticated collars used to study the population have embedded accelerometers that can identify when the animal is hunting, feeding or on the move.
There are an estimated 34 to 42 mountain lions that reside year-round in Yellowstone. But for wildlife watchers in the park, they remain a rare and special sight. The lions tend to move across rugged and difficult-to-access terrain, and are adept at hiding.
“We almost never see a mountain lion,” said Nathan Varley, a biologist who leads wildlife viewing tours in Yellowstone. “They’re just too secretive. They usually only move around at night. They love to hide. They just don’t sit out in the open very much.”
Young male mountain lions are known to travel widely in search of territory not already dominated by a rival, covering many miles in a single day. Those characteristics make them likely targets for hunters once they leave the park’s protected boundaries.
“It often puts young males in the highest category of probable mortality,” Varley said. “It’s so hard for them to live long enough to be competitive with the older males that hold territory.”
Mountain lion M220 was first captured and collared by Yellowstone biologists in December 2019 in the northern section of the park, according to Yellowstone spokeswoman Morgan Warthin. Gum recession measurements indicated that the lion was 3.5 years old at the time, and weighed 130 pounds.
Lemon, the spokesman for Montana’s fish and game agency, said that targeting mountain lions is legal but relatively rare compared to other game hunting and is managed carefully. It often takes place in winter, he added, as hunters will follow lion tracks in the snow and then dogs chase them into trees.
“Once the animal’s in the tree, the hunters choose to harvest it or not,” Lemon said.
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