HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) — Biologists with the University of Montana and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are starting a one-year study on mountain lions living in the east and west fork drainages of the Bitterroot River where a three-year elk study is also being conducted.
The Ravalli Republic reports (http://bit.ly/UU2Hgh) that biologists plan to use hollow biopsy darts to collect DNA samples from cougars treed by dogs. Biologists will also use DNA information collected from scat as well as DNA from mountain lions killed by hunters.
State officials approved the mountain lion study after the elk study discovered mountain lions to be the chief predator of elk calves in the area. Biologists hope to get a better understanding of how many mountain lions are in the region.
Mark Hebblewhite, a University of Montana associate professor, said many people expected the elk study to show wolves to be the chief predators of elk calves.
"Everyone was sure that this was going to be a wolf story," Hebblewhite said. "Like many people, I've been surprised to see what we've learned so far."
But after the elk study discovered the number of elk calves being killed by mountain lions, state officials approved the mountain lion study and increased the quota for hunters of mountain lions in the region.
"We've found that lions play a very important role in elk calf survival in the Bitterroot," Hebblewhite said. "We're not ignoring wolves. We have some collared wolves that we're tracking as well. We decided that if lions were this important to elk, we better understand the lion population here."
Ben Jimenez, a research technician with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, will work with hunters using dogs to collect DNA from treed mountain lions.
"The biopsy darts are less invasive than collaring and handling the animals," Jimenez said. "We will be able to obtain a quality DNA sample and work with a lot of cats."
He said that DNA will be combined with DNA from scat and hair samples as well as lions killed by hunters to get an overall picture of mountain lions living in the area.
"Between those different methods, we should be able to systematically obtain a good sample for the entire area," Jimenez said. "From that, we will be able to put together a density estimate for that portion of the valley."
Officials said information gleaned from the mountain lion study and elk study will be used to make wildlife management decisions.
Information from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com