By Kevin Woster, Journal staff
State wildlife officials confirmed 56 mountain lion deaths in South Dakota in 2006, a 40 percent increase from the previous year that has some conservationists urging caution in setting future hunting seasons on the big cats.
South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks officials argue, however, that a 16-cat increase last year from the 40 confirmed lion deaths in 2005 was another sign that there are plenty of lions in the Black Hills.
Of the 56 confirmed lion deaths, 16 were by sport hunters during the late-autumn lion season. And GF&P officers killed 16 more lions after the animals were determined to be problems for humans or livestock.
Dr. Sharon Seneczko, a Custer veterinarian who heads the Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation, said it was troubling to see such a substantial increase in the mortality outside the sport-hunting season — from 27 in 2005 to 40 in 2006.
“To me, it shows that we have much human-caused mortality — predominantly from traps, cars and the taking of lions (by GF&P) because of problems,” Seneczko said. “I think this problem will only increase as the hills become more populated, there’s more sprawl and more and more places for conflict.”
Nine lions died after being hit by vehicles last year, and seven were accidentally caught in snares or traps.
The increase in total mortality didn’t alarm George Vandel of Pierre, assistant director of GF&P’s Wildlife Division.
“I think it should be seen as a sign that we’ve got lots of lions,” he said. “We’ve had two hunting seasons, yet the number of lions we find (dead) through incidental causes continues to increase. That tells me the lion population is doing quite well.”
GF&P estimated the lion population in 2006 at about 200. GF&P continues to evaluate that estimate, based on ongoing research that includes the tracking of mountain lions fitted with radio-transmitter collars.
One goal of that research is to determine the impact of the hunting season on the lion population. At its current level, hunting doesn’t appear to have a major effect on the population, Vandel said.
Seneczko worries, however, that the combined effect of sport hunting, GF&P removal of lions labeled as troublemakers and the other types of mortality could hurt the population. Reducing the population too far could further diminish genetic diversity and lead to disease and congenital problems, she said.
Seneczko wants the state GF&P Commission to factor in the confirmed lion mortality prior to the hunting season each year. More non-hunting mortality should result in a reduced lion quota during the hunting season, she said.
Seneczko also worries that the GF&P will open to the general public the lion season outside the Black Hills, which is currently limited to landowners. Last year lion hunters in the Black Hills killed 15 lions. One lion was killed in the landowner season outside of the hills.
Vandel said GF&P biologists are discussing the possibility of expanding the prairie season beyond landowners, in response to requests. Since only one lion was killed outside the Black Hills last year, it’s unlikely that such an expansion would have a great effect on the state lion population, he said.
“It’s an idea we’re kicking around,” Vandel said. “One of the things we’re hearing from landowners is that maybe it’s a hired man that has a chance to shoot a lion, or a nephew out from town. I don’t know whether we’ll recommend that or not.”
The GF&P technical staff makes season recommendations to the GF&P Commission. Then the commission proposes the season and accepts public comment for a month before taking final action. The commission is set to propose this year’s hunting season during its April 12-13 meeting in North Sioux City and take final action after a public hearing during its May 10-11 meeting in Custer State Park.
The complete lion report is available on the GF&P Web site at www.sdgfp.info. Go to “outdoor education” and then “mountain lions” to get the report. The 2005 and 2004 reports also are available there.
In the total of 40 confirmed lion deaths in 2005, 13 were during the state’s first lion season. In 2004, there were 24 confirmed lion mortalities.
Vandel said the GF&P staff already considers non-hunting mortality when it recommends a quota for the lion season. The mortality figures in the report don’t claim to represent all lion deaths, Vandel said.
“That’s only the known mortality,” he said. “I’m sure lions are out there dying of other causes, and we don’t find out about them.”
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or email@example.com