Montana Fish and Wildlife Kills Mountain Lions Threatening Rare Bighorn Sheep Population

by Quentin Blount

Three Montana mountain lions were killed recently on Flathead Lake’s Wild Horse Island to help protect a rare population of bighorn sheep.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) announced recently that they had tasked their biologists with taking down three mountain lions on the 2,163-acre island. The cats have always been a problem for the rare bighorn sheep population. But lately, it seems like their numbers have been dwindling even more than usual. FWP Region 1 Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson explained as much. He said that Flathead Lake’s Wild Horse Island doesn’t have the best terrain for sheep to avoid the lions. It has plenty of good vegetation for food, but there are not many cliff structures.

“Due to the lack of escape terrain for bighorn sheep and the number of lions on the island, the bighorn population has been reduced to a number we haven’t seen in decades,” Anderson told the Missoulian.

All things considered, life on the island has been good for the bighorns. Because it’s so easy for domestic sheep to spread infections to bighorns, the isolated island life has helped keep their population disease-free for decades.

Now, you may be wondering how exactly bighorn sheep made their way to Wild Horse Island in the first place. Don’t worry, we’ve got the answer. It turns out that back in 1939, FWP transplanted two bighorns to the island. Eight years later in 1947, they transplanted six more. The group quickly became a source herd for translocations all over the Rocky Mountain West. As a matter of fact, more than 560 bighorns have been moved from the island to add to or start herds in other places. In 2021, 26 bighorn sheep from Wild Horse went to the Tendoy Mountains in southwest Montana.

Decision to Kill Montana Mountain Lions Wasn’t Easy

For those of you who don’t know, Wild Horse Island just so happens to lie within the Flathead Indian Reservation. It’s located in western Montana on the Flathead River. The reservation is home to the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreilles tribes. Together, they are known as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of Flathead Nation. It’s co-managed by the state and CSKT.

“Mountain lion and other cats, like the bobcat, hold significant cultural importance to Tribal members and are not hunted within the Flathead Indian Reservation,” said CSKT wildlife manager Kari Eneas.

It’s clear that mountain lions are an important part of life on Flathead Lake’s Wild Horse Island. Nonetheless, the decision had to be made for all of the wildlife species that reside there.

“Our mountain lion populations are healthy,” Eneas said. “In this unique situation, we considered the habituated behavior and density of animals of all wildlife species on the island in our cooperative decision with FWP.”