Mountain lion Data Analysis Unit (DAU) plans provide a description of the lion management strategic goals and objectives within discrete geographic areas of Colorado. A more detailed description of the approach used in formulating the plans is contained in the document DAU Revision & Quota Development Process
Unlike ungulate DAU plans which set population and herd structure objectives attainable via herd modeling and consequent setting of annual harvest objectives and license allocations, lion DAU plans extrapolate possible population levels and set maximum harvest and total mortality levels consistent with strategic management goals for the population within the DAU. In those DAUs where the strategic goal is to manage toward a stable or increasing lion population, then additional benchmarks are identified related to the proportion or number of females in mortality. The DAU plans provide a framework for setting harvest limits for lions in Game Management Units within the DAUs, which is done annually by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission. During the annual regulation development process mountain lion objective sheets summarize harvest limit recommendations and any shifts in management priorities within DAUs.
In 1965 bounties were abolished and lions were classified as a game animal. The then, Game and Fish Department, established the first seasons which have been set annually since. Lion hunting regulations, seasons, and license availability have varied widely and are summarized in the document Mountain Lion Regulations, Season, Licenses: 1965 – 2011 .
Since 1975 Colorado Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife, CPW) has used the harvest limit system as the means for controlling harvest. Each lion DAU is comprised of multiple game management units (GMUs) with harvest limits set in each of these GMUs or GMU groups. When totaled together they form the DAU harvest limit. A harvest limit represents the maximum amount of hunting mortality CPW managers consider acceptable in any one year. In a few cases the harvest limit matches precisely with the harvest objective. In most cases, because the harvest objective is rarely met, the harvest limit is higher than the harvest objective in order to optimize hunting opportunity. Hunter harvest and total mortality are monitored on a 5-year running average. If harvest or total mortality exceed running average objective levels and are predicted to continue exceeding, or if the proportion of females taken relative to objective levels is excessive, then recommendations to reduce harvest limits follow.
Mountain lion licenses are issued in unlimited quantity. Prior to hunting a hunter calls a toll free number or Colorado Parks and Wildlife office to learn if a particular game management unit is open for lion hunting. There is a mandatory check requirement for lion. System records are updated when lion kills are reported. When a unit (or unit group) meets the harvest limit, then that unit or grouping of units is closed to lion hunting for the remainder of lion seasons that year.
Hunter harvest of mountain lion has increased from 81 in 1980, reaching its highest level in 2001 of 439. Harvest limits gradually increased from 1980 before leveling at about 790 from 1999 through 2004. From about 1992 through 2001 the proportion of females in hunting mortality appeared to be growing from about 40% to about 45%. In the late 1990’s to early 2000’s, hunters in some areas began reporting that the number of older males in hunter harvest seemed to be declining. Growing attention by hunters and species advocate groups, along with concern from CPW manager led to more detailed analysis and development of new DAU plans statewide in 2004.
Beginning in 2005, CPW hosted a series of seminars with lion hunters and houndsmen providing information about gender identification and the value of females in lion populations, information was also provided “on line”, and in the lion hunting brochure. Hunters were asked to voluntarily reduce harvest of females in DAUs managed toward stable to increasing lion populations. In addition, CPW developed an “on line” lion hunter education course and test containing gender identification information and other lion hunting information. In 2007, the Wildlife Commission required hunter to have taken and passed this course before they can obtain a lion hunting license. Voluntary effort to reduce female hunting mortality was successful in reducing the proportion of females from about 44% on average to 36% over the past five years. The lion hunter education requirement will complement the management contributions by hunters and houndsmen.
At present, Colorado Parks and Wildlife does not have an accurate estimate of mountain lion populations. Given this lack of information, there has been much speculation about the appropriate level of harvest. Without a cost effective and reliable census technique we must rely on other indices such as those found in the data analysis unit plans and through annual monitoring of mortality composition changes. None of these mechanisms are absolute; therefore harvest limit recommendations by Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff tend to be conservative. Harvest limits represent the maximum level of possible harvest for that year. On a statewide basis, harvest limits are never reached since in some management units both the harvest objective and harvest limit are greater than hunters ever take. Functionally, these units provide unlimited hunting recreation opportunity during lion seasons. In other management units the harvest limits are regularly reached and hunter harvest is a tool to increase or decrease the lion population. Since hunter harvest and non-hunting mortality is annually variable and dependent upon influences such as weather, snow conditions, and damage conflicts; lion mortality is monitored on five and ten year running averages.
There is ongoing research on the Uncompahgre Plateau and in the mountains west of Denver/Boulder/Longmont. The research on the west slope is focused on the affects of hunter harvest on population demographics and on examining the management assumptions that form the framework for current DAU plans. The front-range research is aimed at testing multiple human-lion conflict prevention methods as well as examining lion demographic and behavior in human altered environments.