Park rangers said they had to shoot the animals, whose under-the-front-porch den was near two occupied houses and within 25 yards of a sledding hill popular with local children.
"The risks to the residents were extraordinary," said ranger Charlie Logan. "It was an unsettling, uncomfortable and, I think, an unsafe situation."
Logan said rangers considered trying to relocate the cats but decided against it after mountain lion expert Maurice Hornocker told them that success rates were low. Rangers also considered trying to place the cats in a zoo, but no zoo would take the animals.
It's unclear how long the cats - a 135-pound female with two 100-pound-plus young - were living under the house. But on Feb. 9, maintenance workers saw them walk across a road.
"It could be they had been there two nights, two months - who knows?" Logan said. Attracted by white-tailed deer in the area, lions were last spotted in the resident complex for agency staffers in early January. After the cats hadn't been seen for a while, signs warning residents of their presence were removed.
"The opportunity was certainly there for the lions to attack kids and dogs, but for the length of time they were there they didn't do that," said biologist Steve Gniadek.
After looking at the crawl space beneath the house, Logan estimated the cats had been using it for about a week. Neighbors near the house said they never saw the cats until they had been shot.
"We were lucky we didn't have an incident," said Liz Hackman, park administrative assistant, who lives near the vacant home with her 4-year-old child. Sometimes they used a footpath that passes within five feet of the house under which the lions were staying. "Part of me was very relieved, but part of me was very sad that we had to destroy the lions," she said.
"I think they made the only decision they could under the circumstances," added Lisa Towery, the park's personnel officer, who lives with her daughters, 14 and 9 years old, in the house closest to where the lions were denning. "They didn't show any fear of humans."
The lions had been seen repeatedly in the Apgar/West Glacier area since last May, when they were spotted strolling through campgrounds. At one point they came close to a tourist using a pay telephone. Logan saw the family group later in the year walking at night beneath a streetlight in the headquarters complex, and park spokesperson Amy Vanderbilt once encountered the trio on a bicycle path.
At one point rangers decided to try to capture the lions, but the opportunity never arose, and one lion that was chased by hounds into the Apgar Mountains soon outdistanced both dogs and rangers.
The lions were treed by hounds, then killed with shotguns loaded with rifle slugs and buckshot.
The carcasses were sent to a laboratory in Bozeman for autopsy; the hides will be tanned for use in park interpretive programs.
* Tad Brooks
Tad Brooks is managing editor of the Hungry Horse News in Columbia Falls, Montana.