Black Hills lions going strong


The South Dakota mountain lion hunting season is in its seventh year despite controversy. More than 73 lions were harvested this winter during the season, which ran from Jan. 1 through March 1. The season is in place primarily to manage the lion population and is based on a quota system. Hunting lions on public land is only allowed in the Black Hills where their numbers are greatest. Modern lion hunting began in the Black Hills during the fall of 2005. That year, the Department of Game, Fish and Parks determined that lion populations had become stable enough to begin a hunting season.

“We found a harvestable surplus,” said John Kanta, the GFP regional wildlife manager for the western third of South Dakota.

The population has remained stable and even grown since 2005, which has prompted GFP to raise season limits.

Lions are managed to maintain what has been deemed a socially acceptable population level, which is somewhere between 150 to 200 individuals. Socially acceptable, according to Kanta, is a number that maintains a healthy population while at the same time limits livestock depredation, impact on other game species and negative human contact.

Not all South Dakotans support a mountain lion hunting season. The Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation is one such organization. According to the foundation’s website it’s goal is to preserve mountain lions on the landscape. The foundation’s president, Dr. Sharon Seneczko, could not be reached by the time of publication.

Mountain lion population estimates going into the 2012 hunting season stood at around 250 individuals, well beyond the desired population limit. According to Kanta, the quickest and easiest way to lower the population is through hunting, though not trophy hunting.

“I don’t necessarily want to kill big (males),” Kanta said. He explained that removing females from the population is the surest way to keep populations in check. SDSU professor of natural resource management Jonathan Jenks, who studies Black Hills mountain lions for GFP, said that the females are very good at reproduction.

“We had one female who lost her kittens to infanticide during the summer, then went back into estrus and had another litter in December [and] those kittens survived,” Jenks said.

According to Jenks, up to 90 percent of male lions born in the Black Hills end up leaving the area.

“We had one radio collared (lion) that went to Oklahoma,” he said.

Jenks went on to say that lions with genetic links to the Black Hills have been found as far away as Chicago and Connecticut.

The mountain lion season operates much like other big game hunting seasons, in that hunters must apply for a tag in order to hunt. Anyone who applies for a tag will receive one but they are bound by special rules.

Hunters must check in every morning before going into the field and they must call and register any kill within 24 hours. GFP can then monitor the number and gender of lions that are harvested. The 2012 season’s quota was actually set at 70 total lions or 50 female lions. Three additional lions were killed on March 1 because the hunter who killed the 70th lion did not register his kill before the start of the next day.

“That’s not going to make or break the population,” Kanta said.

For nearly 100 years, lions were absent from the Black Hills until the 1980s, when they began to reappear. By the late 1990’s, lion sightings began to increase and in 1998, the first modern population studies began.

“They came back on their own,” Kanta said. “We (GFP) did not reintroduce them.”