Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Living in lion country

 

November 21, 2019

Sigrid Olson, Pathfinder

A mountain lion rests in a large ponderosa pine in 2015 in the Blackfoot Valley.

SEELEY LAKE – Thursday, Oct. 31 wasn't the first time Patti Bartlett had seen a mountain lion on her property. She and her dog Chinook were out checking her pasture fence off north Boy Scout Road before 5 p.m. They saw a mountain lion track but it wasn't fresh so Bartlett didn't think much about it.

"I remember looking down the fence line...I didn't even hear or see....Chinook was right by my side, a foot away maybe, and he made a funny noise. I whipped around and I saw the mountain lion with Chinook in his mouth," said Bartlett.

Local Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists and game wardens all agree this is abnormal behavior for a mountain lion. However, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Wildlife Biologist Scott Eggeman, the number of mountain lions in and around Seeley Lake is increasing. This is part of the natural cycle following the past two hard winters. Residents are urged to use caution and common sense while living in the middle of some of the best mountain lion habitat in western Montana.

* * * * *

The Clearwater and Swan Valleys are prime mountain lion habitat because they are wide valleys with a lot of timber and deer and elk are prevalent. With 12 major creeks as well as the Clearwater River funneling right to Seeley Lake, the mountain lions naturally follow the drainages that lead them to town.

"I've heard [the Clearwater and Swan drainages] called a mountain lion producing factory. It is just such prime habitat," said FWP bear and lion management specialist James Jonkel. "These lions go up and down these drainages. On a weekly basis, there are a lot of lions moving in and around the Seeley area."

Eggeman said the deer numbers were up a couple years ago but with two big winters, their population has dwindled. While the winters were hard on the deer, they became easy prey for lions. With an abundant prey source, the lions had more kittens and the population increased.

"And now you have fewer deer and a bunch more lions," said Eggeman. "They are starting to come into town because the deer are in town."

Eggeman said young lions are often pushed to the periphery because the larger, more dominate males run them out of their territory or their mother runs them off. While searching for their own territory and looking for food, they are more likely to get in trouble because they aren't as intelligent as older lions.

Jonkel said every four to five years there is a big pulse of lion activity. He added there have been summers with more lions in Seeley Lake than this past year.

In the wild, mountain lions typically prey on yellow-bellied marmots, small black bears, deer, elk, grouse and turkeys.

When deer and elk are brought closer to homes due to intentional feeding or putting out a salt lick or unintentionally by leaving gardens unfenced or having a manicured lawn, mountain lions are attracted closer to homes.

"One person salting in Seeley Lake will inadvertently create a game trail system into the heart of town where deer and elk start traveling to get the salt," said Jonkel. "Then all the predators follow those prey species."

Domestic fowl, small livestock including pigs, goats and sheep and an abundance of outdoor cats are more attractants that will also bring lions into a community.

Jonkel said feral house cats have become part of the natural prey base since there are so many in Seeley Lake. Cat urine is an attractant for lions. Also, because they are territorial, mountain lions get agitated when another cat is present.

Mountain lions are natural enemies of dogs. Dogs are seen as competition, like a coyote or wolf.

"A lot of these little dogs [especially Pomeranians] look like yellow-bellied marmots," said Jonkel. He added that black dogs can be mistaken for a small black bear and brown dogs can be taken for a fawn.

* * * * *

Bartlett broke off a tree and starting hitting the mountain lion in the head. He was coming towards her still holding Chinook in his mouth.

"He was very close. I broke that tree on his head," said Bartlett. "I was lucky that there was a long branch near my other arm so I just started beating on him with that. At that point he dropped Chinook."

Chinook ran to Bartlett's left and the mountain lion crouched down and made eye contact with her. As he crouched back, Chinook ran in the middle. The mountain lion grabbed Chinook and carried him in his mouth 20-feet up a large fir tree.

"I was real big and I had a big stick in my hand and he wasn't going anywhere – he wasn't afraid of me," said Bartlett.

Bartlett called her son Colton Dunlap. When he didn't answer she called his wife Johnnie. Bartlett threw rocks and sticks to distract the lion from Chinook until Johnnie arrived and Colton was on his way. Together they got the lion to drop Chinook. Bartlett grabbed him and ran to the house.

"I didn't think much about this at the time - Johnnie had a gun, someone had to stay at the tree - I probably should not have left her," said Bartlett.

The lion tried to come down the tree after Bartlett, but Johnnie kept him in the tree by throwing stuff at him.

When Bartlett arrived with Chinook at her house, Colton pulled up and headed out to find Johnnie. FWP was contacted and the lion was dispatched.

Bartlett rushed Chinook to the veterinarian. He had 50 staples and was blind. While he did regain consciousness and was able to come home for one night, he died from his injuries five days later.

"Chinook and I were outside all the time," said Bartlett. "I needed to pay more attention than what I was doing. I should have had my bear spray."

Bartlett credits Johnnie and Colton for helping her rescue Chinook and saving her from injury.

"If they wouldn't have been there, I never would have gotten Chinook away from that tree, even with the lion dropping him because he tried to come back out of the tree after me," said Bartlett. "He was on a mission, he was wanting his supper and I took it away from him."

There have been two other dogs that were attacked by mountain lions this fall – one on Placid Lake in late October involving a west highland terrier and an Australian Shepherd that was killed Nov. 8 near Lake Alva.

In both cases FWP was not contacted until several hours later and in one case the next day. While FWP brought in hounds to track the lion, the scent was gone and they were not able to track it.

"It happens way more than people think," said Koppen. "If we can bring in hounds and get one treed, there is a good chance it will be put down, depending on the situation. Lions don't get a lot of chances."

FWP can set a trap for nuisance lions that chase dogs and house cats or are hanging around residents. If it is a case with preying on livestock, Wildlife Services will be contacted and they can trap a lion with a culvert trap, leg trap or snare.

Jonkel said hunting seasons is also a good way to manage urban lion populations. The big game hunting season is open. Hunters can hunt a lion with a tag and a rifle through Dec. 1. Hound season starts Dec. 1 – Jan. 31 and lion hunting is allowed with a special permit.

Things to do to avoid a lion conflict:

• Use common sense, be aware of mountain lion sign and your surroundings. Lions move without making a sound in the woods.

• Skirt buildings and porches and close abandoned buildings so lions don't move in for winter.

• Reduce deer attractants. It is illegal to feed deer and put out a salt lick. Fence gardens and reduce mowed lawn to discourage deer from taking up residence.

• Keep pets in at night. If they have to go out at dawn, dusk or at night, go out with them and turn on outdoor lights.

• If there is a lot of mountain lion sign in an area, don't allow young children to play unattended. Jonkel said Seeley Lake is about as wild of a place to live as there is in the lower 48 states and everyone should teach their kids about lions just like they do black and grizzly bears.

If confronted by a lion:

• Maintain eye contact.

• Stand your ground and look as large as possible. Eggeman said lions are solitary, they rely on themselves. Injury can be a death sentence – 99 percent of the time the lion will retreat.

• Shine a light or blinking light in the mountain lion's eyes.

• Use bear spray. Bear spray works on any animal with mucus membranes.

• Fight back if the lion attacks.

Photo provided

Patti Bartlett with Chinook.

"Lions are just here and are always going to be here," said Koppen. "Don't just take it upon yourself to put that animal down unless it is life and limb. If someone puts one down, they need to notify myself or FWP right away."

Lion in Seeley Lake? Report it!

• 24 hour reporting at Missoula Bears (missoulabears.org) or on Missoula Bears Facebook page.

• Call James Jonkel, 406-544-1447

• Call FWP Wildlife Conflict Specialist Eli Hampson, 406-210-3213.

For an immediate problem in Seeley Lake:

• Call Game Warden Bill Koppen 406-210-1299

• Call Biologist Scott Eggeman, 406-5542-5542

Call 1-800-TIP-MONT to report illegal activity.

 

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