WSB: Structured decision making helps set cougar harvest

By Julia John

A cougar peeps out from below snow-covered branches in Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. ©U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As any wildlife manager can attest, managing species can be difficult when it involves groups of people who come to the table with conflicting interests. But tools are available to reconcile them and clarify decision-making.

A recent study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin looked at how one of those tools — a process called structured decision making — helped guide the creation of harvest quotas for mountain lions (Puma concolor) in Montana by untangling human values from science and building consensus among stakeholders.

“Structured decision making is effective for dealing with challenging decisions about wildlife management in the public arena — the formalized application of common sense to problems,” said TWS member Michael Mitchell, lead author on the paper. “It breaks down a problem into logical components and deals with those sequentially. Until you go through this process that makes a decision transparent, it’s difficult for people to find the common ground they need to agree on something they can all live with.”

Mountain lions are a hot topic in west-central Montana. While some hunters pursue them with hounds, others worry the cats may be driving down deer and elk populations, said Mitchell, a leader with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit.

When it came to setting harvest quotas based on cougar population numbers, he said, groups gravitated toward different density estimates to bolster their arguments. Cougar hunters tended to choose conservative numbers that would lead to reduced cougar harvests. Deer and elk hunters tended toward larger numbers that would favor reducing their populations.

“The ability to come up with a publicly vetted recommendation for lion quotas ground to a standstill because it was a contentious decision-making environment,” he said.

To help navigate this thorny issue, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks turned to structured decision making.

The first step entailed identifying the problem among a focus group of stakeholders, Mitchell said. They cooperatively described it, discussed the goals they wanted to accomplish by resolving it and determined various decisions they could carry out, scoring each one based on how effectively it met each of those aims.

Participants produced a range of potential harvest quotas, but their impact on cougar numbers were about the same, Mitchell said. After science showed no significant difference between them, he said, it allowed the discussion to turn to the values the stakeholders brought to the table. Structured decision making, he said, “helped refine the conversation so people were discussing what the problem really was. That brought credibility to these citizens talking about how they felt about quotas.”

When they arrived at a proposed harvest limit, it matched what the agency had already envisioned, Mitchell said, but that total was apportioned among hunting districts according to their values. “Sociologically, it was important because the stakeholders had ownership,” he said. “They were part of this process where they all got a say.”

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

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