MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department is beginning to develop a new plan for managing mountain lions in the state.

The current plan is about 20 years old, and officials hope to have a new plan ready by the end of this year.

“The old plan had a certain amount of trust, but the farther we’ve gotten away from it over time, there’s been an erosion of that trust,” FWP regional wildlife manager Mike Thompson told the Missoulian. “We need to show we have a way of really serving the needs of the public. And a lot has happened in the 20 years since the last plan.”

That includes growth in the number of mountain lions, the number of people hunting them, and the number of people now living in places the lions frequent. Growing populations of urban deer have drawn mountain lions into densely populated subdivisions such as the Upper Miller Creek area of Missoula.

FWP has also gotten better at counting lions and understanding the effect they have on wild deer and elk, domestic livestock and their own social structure.

“Mountain lion research and population monitoring techniques have come a long way over the past 20 years,” said Jay Kolbe, an FWP biologist in White Sulphur Springs in charge of coordinating the new draft plan. “Today, we’re better equipped to build a plan that will help conserve healthy lion populations while ensuring continued public hunting opportunities for both lions and their prey.”

But the outdated plan has left the agency reacting to lion issues more than getting ahead of them.

For example, lion hunting quotas have varied up and down both by the number of lions suspected in an area and the number of hunters interested in pursuing them. The agency has struggled to find a balance that allows more experienced hunters a chance at early-season hunts while providing enough hunter opportunities to ensure the proper number of lions are removed each year.

Lion hunting differs from many other big-game pursuits in the use of packs of hounds to chase the big cats. Houndsmen often train their dogs by treeing the lions but not killing them.

Thompson said a balance also has to be kept between providing enough lions for lion hunters without allowing too much predation on deer and elk herds, potentially angering another constituency.

“When we wrote the first plan, we had extraordinarily high populations of lions,” Thompson said. “The subsequent hunting took the populations quite low – in some cases, lower than intended. Then we had to let the lion populations grow back. We have to ask questions like is it OK to reduce or raise numbers like that? Are our hunting methods ethical? That taxes the trust in the agency.”

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Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com