Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Increased livestock depredation linked to mountain lions

 

April 23, 2020

Sigrid Olson, Pathfinder

A wolf stopped at livestock fencelines in Potomac March 29. The landowner has been noticing tracks in the area since January. There are known wolf packs in the Sheep Mountain, Sunflower Mountain and Belmont areas.

Living in rural Montana, people get used to seeing signs of wolves, lions and bears and if they get lucky, running into the animals themselves. However, the presence of predators for ranchers and other livestock owners poses unique challenges.

In 2019, the Montana's Livestock Loss Board recorded 376 livestock killed by wolves, grizzly bears and lions. This is the highest number of livestock killed by predators since they started keeping statistics in 2008 and resulted in the highest payouts to ranchers by more than $30,000.

While these numbers may be alarming to some, local Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Wildlife Biologist Scott Eggeman and FWP Bear and Lion Management Specialist Jamie Jonkel agree that part of the increase in conflict numbers is because mountain lion depredation was added for reimbursement in 2017. It is also a result of the higher numbers of predators due to recent harsh winters and a product of increased home sites with hobby farms expanding into the wildlands.

According to the Montana Department of Livestock, the number of livestock losses and claims made in 2019 was only six more than in 2009. However, the amount paid in the claims was nearly $116,000 more.

Of the 376* depredations reported for reimbursement in 2019 across the state, 155* cattle, 174* sheep, 28 goats, 13 llama/swine, four horses and two guard dogs depredated (*Note, The Livestock Loss Board reported different totals. Their numbers show one more loss in Lewis and Clark County and two losses in Lake County accounting for one cattle and two sheep missed in totals reported). Grizzly bears accounted for 175 losses, with lions causing 122 livestock deaths and wolves responsible for 79 losses.

Jonkel said the biggest cause of livestock death in the Blackfoot Valley is from natural causes. He said livestock owners removed 800-900 carcasses a year that are not predator related.

Depredation related to bears in the Blackfoot is very low with an annual average of two. Last year, three grizzlies were euthanized in the Blackfoot but only one was a result of calf depredation.

When lion depredation was eligible for reimbursement, the numbers and the payouts increased statewide (see chart below). In Missoula County, the only depredation reported for reimbursement since 2017 has been from lions. There have been 17 livestock losses to lions including eight sheep, seven goats, one cow and one swine.

Of the 66 cattle and sheep losses submitted for reimbursement from 2017-2019 in Powell County, 26 deaths were caused by wolves and 12 were from grizzly bears. Lions accounted for 1 sheep death in 2017 and 27 sheep deaths in 2018.

Eggeman feels that the increased conflict with livestock and lions is a result of the bad winters increasing the lion numbers in the area. Two to three years ago, there were good deer and elk numbers in the area. However during the 2017-2018 winter, Seeley Lake received 220 inches of snow, 80 inches higher than the average.

"It makes it difficult for deer and elk to get around and feed in that. This restricts them to anything above the snow line and limits their movement," said Eggeman. "Predators put a dent in [ungulate] numbers."

Last winter, the area received average snowfall. However, in February and March when temperatures should have been on the rise, they stayed well below zero.

"The cold doesn't help them either, especially the deer, because they don't have the body mass. If they are already hungry they are using a lot of calories just to stay warm," said Eggeman. "That really hits the younger ones. They are nutritionally stressed, they are weak and they are easy prey."

When winters are bad for deer and elk, Eggeman said they are good for lions and wolves. When there is a good food source for predators, "they make more lions and wolves."

Since this winter was pretty mild, Eggeman said it has been easier on the deer and elk. With higher numbers of lions and wolves, the young lions are forced to move closer to populated areas as the larger toms expand their territory. Like with all population cycles, Eggeman expects the lion and wolf numbers to decline as well.

Jonkel said the black bear population has been at carrying capacity for a long time. The grizzly population in the area is back to historic numbers and at carrying capacity for the Blackfoot.

Jonkel said the highest conflicts are with mountain lions and bears in the Blackfoot. This is in part due to the tenfold increase in the number of people that have minature pigs, chickens, baby goats due to 4-H projects and hobby farms.

There are a lot of preventative measures that have been proven to work. Minimizing attractants is the best thing for bears. Jonkel said usually it is the grains and odor that bring them in first. Then they find a domestic animal and realize it is pretty good.

"Bears are extremely smart. They go for the easy stuff," said Jonkel.

Eggeman said lions are also attracted to hobby farms. Having things on a property that attracts deer also increases mountain lion conflict because the lions come in after the deer.

"That is tough because it means people have to change the way they live their life and there are things they can't do," said Eggeman. "Even myself, my garden has to be pretty low key and I can't compost. If you have the small hobby farm stuff you need to have an electric fence. That is the trade off of living in a place like the Blackfoot where we are lucky enough to be surrounded by the country that we are."

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder / Data from annual livestock loss statistics reported by Dept. of Livestock Loss Board

While livestock depredation across the state has been on the rise since 2014, livestock losses reported to the Department of Livestock really started to increase only mountain lion depredation was eligible for reimbursement.

Jonkel recommends residents look at their property like a bear or a lion would. Take note of what might attract them and then take steps to contain or minimize those attractants so when the bears and lions wander through, they are not rewarded. Unless this advice is followed, Jonkel said the number of conflicts will continue to increase.

"There are very few places on this planet that are as wild as this valley and somehow make it work," said Eggeman. "You have landowners in a lot of this valley that are very supportive of the fact that we have all these critters running around. And as inconvenient as that can be [to install an electric fence or contain attractants], you also need to realize how special it is to have all these animals."

If you have experienced a conflict with a predator, residents are encouraged to report it as soon as possible. Call Jonkel, 406-544-1447 or FWP Wildlife Conflict Specialist Eli Hampson, 406-210-3213. For an immediate problem in Seeley Lake call Eggeman, 406-542-5542. Bear and lion sightings and conflicts can also be reported at Missoula Bears (missoulabears.org) or on the Missoula Bears Facebook page. To report illegal activity call 1-800-TIP-MONT (1-800-847-6668).

 

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