Short Lion Harvest Sparks Critics

Mar 31, 2013

A tranquilized Black Hills mountain lion is about to wake up after being fitted with a radio tracking collar.

The mountain lion hunting season in the Black Hills has come to an end.  This year hunters were allowed to harvest up to 100 lions.   But for the first time since the lion hunting was brought back to the hills hunters failed to achieve the quota set out by the Game Fish and Parks Commission.

GF&P officials say the fact that hunters harvested far fewer lions than the limit likely shows the numbers of the big cats are now down in the Black Hills.  They say the lions are a renewable resource and their numbers will again return.

But critics see a red flag.   They say the GF&P allowed over hunting of the cats – at a determent to the viability of the lion population, and the Black Hills ecosystem. 

SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray has today’s Dakota Digest on the longstanding controversy over  the mountain lion hunt.

Game Fish and Parks officials like Mike Kintigh say there may be a number of reasons hunters didn’t achieve the 100 lion limit this year.  One factor that can limit numbers is the amount of snow on the ground -- snow can make lions easier to track and kill.  But Kintigh says there was more snow this year than last year–so he says this factor shouldn’t have contributed to the lower numbers of cats taken.  Rather, Kintigh says the past two years of hunting have likely dropped the lion population in the Black Hills.  He says with fewer cats, they are harder for hunters to find.

“I do believe we have gotten into the lion population.  I think our season last year started to nose us in a downward trend.   Coming back then this year with an even higher limit I fully expected that if we reached that limit that we would have gotten into the lion population significantly,” says Kintigh.

Kintigh says much more analysis is needed before a more definitive answer is found on the impact this hunting has had on lion population.  He says research on the age range, sex, health, and genetic makeup of the harvested cats will help wildlife managers understand where to go next.  Kintigh says even if the lion population is down–it will rebound.     But some critics see it very differently. 

“What’s going on in South Dakota is a travesty.  It’s ecologically wrong, it’s management wrong,” says Dr. John Laundre who teaches at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Dr. John Laundre is a predator ecologist who’s studied Mountain Lions in the North America for over 30 years.  He wrote the book “Phantoms of the Prairie the Return of Cougars to the Midwest.”   Laundre says he is not against hunting of lions, but he contends the population of mountain lions in the Black Hills has crashed due to overhunting.    Laundre says by the Game Fish and Parks Department own estimate of lions was at about 250 cats two years ago.   He says about 160 of those were adults--while the numbers are often in dispute–Laundre says a limit of 100 lions this past season violates basic rules of wildlife management.

“For example-if you have about 150 bighorn sheep in the Black Hills-around the same number that we had adult mountain lions.  Would the Game Commission approve of hunting 100 of those animals, killing both females and young?  No.  Why are they applying totally different rules, contrary to sound wildlife management, to another species?  This is wrong,” says Laundre.   

The numbers of lions South Dakota are not easily pinned down. Officials with the Game Fish and Parks Commission say they are aiming to have the population maintained at 185 cats in the state.   They refute allegations that lions are being over harvested, saying more study is needed.     Chuck Schlueter a GF&P spokesperson also disputes the idea that that the Game Fish and Parks Commission is ignoring the science on best management practices.   

“There’s a broad spectrum of information they have to weigh with that.  There is the biology aspect the wildlife management aspect, there’s how those lions are interacting with other wildlife in the Black Hills. Then there is a  huge aspect, that’s what the public feel is right and wrong for lion harvest.  The commission has a huge task of weighting all those put together,” says Schlueter  

But critics say groups like the state Game Fish and Parks Commission too often rely on political reasons for management rather than species health and diversity.  Dr. Jay Tischendorf is a wildlife biologist and veterinarian in Montana.  He says he’s enjoyed hunting, trapping and fishing in the past – but he says he’s dismayed by what is happening to lions in the Black Hills.

“Many of the state fish and game agencies that ostensibly should be managing all natural resources capably, often become hook and bullet organizations, that cater specifically to very strong lobbied and special interest groups—and that would include deer hunters, elk hunters, and also the agricultural lobby, says Tischendorf.”   

GF&P officials say the data brought in during this hunting season will be compiled and carefully considered by wildlife managers as the commission as it makes its decision on the 2014 lion season–that decision isn’t expected until August.  Those like Game Fish and Parks Commission Chair Susie Knippling stress that a number of lions do remain in the South Dakota.  At the same time she says they need to be carefully managed.

“But I think the landowners have a right to be able to make sure that their livestock is safe form the mountain lion.  And you know the numbers were at a good place in the 90’s and that’s what we need to get back too.  Because there were lions in the state but there weren’t as many as in previous two years and that’s what we need to get back to,” says Knippling.

This issue could be boiled down to a dichotomy--of two opposing world views.  One maintains that predators need to be aggressively controlled to protect big game species, livestock, and people.  On the other side there is a belief held up by conservation biology that predator species are essential to proper ecosystem health. They argue that lions don’t have a history of attacking people in South Dakota, and don’t take significant numbers of livestock.   While there are undoubtedly large areas of grey in the middle of these two opposing views–the future of how lions are managed in the state depends on what side the State Game and Parks Commission lands.