Elusive as a wisp of smoke as it prowls through the back country, the mountain lion may be shoved into the spotlight as a test case for the future of all hunting in Idaho.

State biologists contend Idaho's cat population is bounding ahead and that controlled hunting is a necessary biological tool to manage it.But sentiment against hunting mountain lions comes from groups ranging from the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation in California, which questions the research data about lion numbers, to the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting and its claim that the recreational activity benefits only a small part of society.

The number of cats is the issue. Morris Hornocker, head of the Wildlife Research Institute at the University of Idaho, said there is strong evidence lion numbers are up.

But Idaho Fish and Game biologist Lou Nelson conceded that it's difficult to estimate Idaho's number of mountain lions, and Hornocker, who has trailed mountain lions for years through central Idaho's Big Creek area, agreed.

"We're dropping away from listing numbers," Nelson said. "People started talking about numbers and we couldn't defend them."

The Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation determined that was the case when it successfully campaigned for passage of California's Proposition 117, which this spring banned sport hunting for mountain lions in that state.

The group was bothered by research information California game officers were presenting to back up their hunts, said Mark Palmer, foundation conservation director.

"Our position is we're concerned with the overall status of lion hunting," he said. "We didn't think it was a sporting activity."

Fish and Game Department spokesman Jack Trueblood said he was thrilled a decade ago when he and his late father, outdoor writer Ted Trueblood, saw cougar tracks in Owyhee County. The species had nearly disappeared there by 1980.

But now, Trueblood said, "Mountain lions are virtually everywhere in the state."

Mountain lions were termed "predators" until 1972, when they were given game-animal status and were no longer fair targets of anyone "with a saddle gun," Trueblood said.

The annual take increased from 108 in 1965 to 400 in 1984. Some 340 were shot last year.

"Just the fact we called them game animals made them more attractive," he said. "The increased hunter success is a byproduct of increased numbers."

But determining how many lions exist in a specific area takes the tracking skills of a mountain man and the lungs of a climber. Scientists assemble data on the cats by finding the carcasses of prey, scat and lion tracks, which can grow as large as Little League baseball mitts.

Hornocker's advice to Fish and Game officials for maintaining mountain lions in the field is to restrict the taking of females. Research shows that will maintain genetic diversity and healthy populations, he said.

In their recommendations for the Department of Fish and Game's upcoming five-year mountain lion management plan, agency biologists recommend the lion harvest be trimmed to an average of about 250, with a range of 187 to 313. Also suggested is lowering the percentage of females taken from 45 to 32-35 percent.

Under one option, controlled hunts or harvest quotas would be set in some units to protect small populations or isolated numbers. To encourage hunting for males, a $100 tag fee for females could be established.

Under a second alternative, each unit would have a total harvest quota and a subquota for female cats. The hunting season would close on Feb. 28 unless either quota was reached earlier.

"We do have very liberal hunting seasons, some up to six months. They are the most liberal in the Western states," Hornocker said.

Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation researcher Kevin Hansen says that events can occur within a cat population that biologists never document because the animals are so elusive. For example, a native population may lose some members, but "transient" cats from other populations could filter in to bolster the number.

It also is extremely hard to determine if packs of hounds destroy kittens or cause miscarriages in females, he said. Some studies indicate up to 40 percent more cats are lost than game biologists suspect.

"If a population takes a big hit, it can be a disaster," Hansen said. "There are biological and management reasons why you shouldn't do that kind of hunting, and then you get into the moral ones."

Mountain lion hunting is just one aspect of a national practice that profits a small percentage of people to the detriment of most Americans, said Luke Dommer of the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting.

Dommer contended state game agencies manage animals for the benefit of hunters, eliminating predators to artificially boost deer and elk populations.