MISSOULA, Mont. - An international wildlife protection organization has petitioned the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to end mountain lion hunting in the state.

The group Big Wildlife cites a Washington State University study that says hunting mountain lions leads to more dangerous encounters between people and the big cats.

Ron Aasheim, spokesman for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the agency has seen a press release from Big Wildlife about the petition, but hasn't yet seen the petition.

Aasheim said any such request would have to wait until the annual process of setting hunting quotas. The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission begins the process each fall.

"It's a very public process that would include public input," Aasheim said. "The commission and department would take it under consideration, and the commission decides if it wants to enact any changes."

Big Wildlife spokesman Brian Vincent said the group has made similar requests in Washington and Oregon.

"The reason we're involved is because of a pretty critical report released recently by Washington State University that says cougar populations are struggling, due to liberalized hunting and aggressive lethal control," Vincent said.

The study, by Robert Wielgus, director of university's Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory, concluded that killing large numbers of cougars creates social chaos among the species.

Wielgus said hunters often target adult males, which act as a stabilizing force in cougar populations. The adults police large territories and drive out or kill young males.

With the adults gone, Wielgus said, the "young hooligans" run wild. He said most cougar conflicts with humans involve cats younger than 2 who are just learning to live on their own.

Big Wildlife called mountain lions a "keystone species" that helps sustain ecological integrity and preserve species diversity by contributing to the regulation of deer, elk and other animal populations.

Montana sold 3,903 mountain lion licenses to residents and 145 to nonresidents last season. Those hunters took 350 cats, well below the statewide quota of 459.

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