Hunters play role in trimming lion population
For information on the season, including a list of the lions killed, go to http://gfp.sd.gov/hunting/big-game/mountain-lion-season-harvest-status.aspx
For the second consecutive year, the appointed citizens' commission set a season with a kill quota higher than the one recommended by the Game, Fish & Parks Department's biological staff. The commission's intent was to cut a lion population estimated at about 250 down to about 175 over a period of three or four years.
And it appears hunters are doing just that."If we have roughly the same level of overall lion mortality this year that we had in 2010, we're decreasing the population," said GF&P regional game manager John Kanta of Rapid City. "And that's the management objective."
The total lion mortality in the state -- essentially the Black Hills region, which is the main lion range -- recorded by GF&P in 2010 was 94. That included 40 lions killed during the 2010 hunting season as well as troublesome lions that were killed outside the season by GF&P and a variety of accidents and natural deaths.
So far this year, there have been 50 recorded lion deaths, including the 47 from the season. Kanta said it appears likely that another 90 or so lion deaths will be confirmed this year.
Based on total mortality and other data in 2010, Kanta and other GF&P biologists estimate the lion population at about 225, down from the previous estimate of 250. If overall mortality this year continues as Kanta expects, that could bring the population estimate down to about 200 by late summer, when the GF&P Commission begins considering setting the 2012 lion season.
Kanta isn't ready to make that prediction or hazard a population estimate at this point. But the success of hunters in the 2011 lion season will be an important factor in that estimate.The season began Jan. 1 and ended Monday, Feb. 21, when hunters filled -- and overfilled -- the maximum kill quota of 45. The actual total was 47 because two more lions were killed that day before hunters got the word that the quota had been reached.
Forty-four lions had been killed as of Sunday. And hunters killed three more on Monday. GF&P officials said the last two lions were considered legal because hunters are only required to check the kill quota daily.
Roger Dubs of Rapid City shot one of those last three lions, his first in six seasons of hunting the big cats. Dubs, a 66-year-old helicopter pilot, said he had seen at least one lion every season but never had a good shot until this year.
The snow conditions on the last day of the season were good for tracking lions."It was ideal. The snow was fresh, and it was about knee deep. Everything worked out just perfect," he said. Dubs is among the group of hunters who believes that the GF&P mountain lion population estimate is low. He also believes that the big cats are key factors in declining deer and elk populations in the Hills and that the lion quota should be increased.
"I think it needs to be bumped up," he said.Some critics of the season argue that the Game, Fish & Parks Commission has expanded the season quota too fast in ways that threaten the well-being of the lions. Kanta said the GF&P staff and commission are working in between those two conflicting interest groups and believe the plan is working.That doesn't mean they know it all, he said.
"This has been a real learning experience since that first season in 2005," Kanta said. "We do know a lot about mountain lions here in South Dakota, but we're still learning new things every day."
This year, for the first time, the GF&P Commission allowed mountain lion hunting in Custer State Park. The park season also began Jan. 1 and remains open through March 31, unless the quota of five lions is reached there. So far, none have been turned in.
Research into the lion population continues, with GF&P cooperating with wildlife specialists from South Dakota State University in Brookings. That work includes tracking mountain lions fitted with radio and GPS collars.The results of the season also add to the lion data that GF&P uses to make population estimates and set seasons and adjust management plans.
"Everything went well this season," Kanta said. "I think we got a lot of good data to work with."
That data includes the weight and estimated age of each lion killed, as well as the general location and date. Of the 47 lions killed in the main season, 26 were female and 21 male.They ranged in age from 5 months to 7 years and in weight from 33 pounds to 177 pounds."It gives us a good snapshot of the population," Kanta said. "And assuming this is a random cross-section of the population, it looks like we've got good age and sex diversity."