Mountain Lion hunting season ended Monday. This year’s quota was 25 fewer than last year’s of 100. But as of Friday, only 52 lions had been harvested. There’s a lot of data that goes into determining the mountain lion quota and it’s up to a Game, Fish and Parks commission to consider that data, plus input from mountain lion enthusiasts and protectors to set a limit.
John Kanta is a regional wildlife manager with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. He says mountain lion harvest numbers are lower than last year. But he says that doesn’t mean the population is smaller.
“The season is really, and how it goes and how many are harvested and at what times, it’s really a poor gauge of what’s going on with the mountain lion population. There’s lots of things that can impact harvest and success. It’s not really fair to use that as a gauge of the mountain lion population,” Kanta says.
Hunting licenses are also down from last year. About 32 hundred mountain lion hunting licenses were sold for the 2014 season. Kanta says anything over three thousand is a solid number, so it’s not necessarily fewer hunters leading to fewer kills.
“We’ve had good conditions out there throughout the season, we’ve had snow on and off throughout the season. Now one thing that happened this year, I suppose that you could set aside from last year is we did have a lot of days with subzero temperatures and frigid cold weather. I know talking to some of the hunters, anyways, kept them inside rather than outside trying to get a lion,” Kanta says.
Kanta says the GFP presents information on the mountain lion population every August to the commission that ultimately decides the hunting quota by October.
“We try to project the population into the future based on current survival rates on collared mountain lions and, of course, the harvest rate and different things we can plug into that model. What that told us is that the population is decreasing so we presented that to the commission. Certainly the commission was looking at the harvest limit last year, which was 100 as I mentioned, and last year we harvested 61 lions so we didn’t come close to that harvest limit. I know for some commissioners that was certainly something they were taking into consideration and weighed on their decision when they chose to reduce the harvest limit,” he says.
With the decreasing mountain lion population in the Black Hills, Kanta says that affects other species within the ecosystem. He says he’s seen the elk population increase in Custer State Park as mountain lion hunting has increased with the use of hounds.
“Mountain lions can have an impact on deer in particular, but other ungulates elk and big horn sheep and things that they prey upon. So certainly with the decrease in the mountain lion population we’re seeing some relief if you will for some of those prey populations, particularly the deer, again. Now, I wouldn’t attribute all of it to the mountain lions. Certainly hunter harvest is a big part of that, and disease and other predators. There’s a lot more things to this picture than just lions,” Kanta says.
As the mountain lion hunting season comes to an end and Game, Fish and Parks starts compiling data to determine next year’s quota, Kanta says it’s hard to predict if it’ll change. He says opinions on the issue vary greatly, as those interested in deer and elk think there should be way less mountain lions, but others say let nature take its course.
“That’s the tough job is trying to incorporate those social aspects of how these different populations should be managed. It’s very polarized—it goes from one end to the other and everywhere in between. It’s a difficult job to make everybody happy and at the same time being responsible managers and managing for a healthy ecosystem and healthy populations of all wildlife,” he says.
Kanta says the goal of the department is to have 150 to 200 mountain lions in the Black Hills where there’s the habitat to support the species. Officials will determine later this fall whether the quota will continue to decrease during hunting season or remain the same.