By Ryan Woodard, Journal staff
RAPID CITY - If the Game, Fish & Parks Commission concurs with the GF&P wildlife division's mountain lion hunting season recommendation, hunters will be able to shoot almost twice as many female lions during the 2007 season than were allowed in the 2006 season.
GF&P officials say increasing the limit is reasonable and within their management scheme, but some lion advocates believe the increase could hurt the population.
At the May 11 commission meeting, the GF&P wildlife division staff recommended that this year's mountain season should have a harvest limit of 35 lions or 15 females - meaning the season would end when either 35 lions or 15 females were killed.
"In general, I'm very disappointed with their decision to nearly double the female sub-quota," said Sharon Seneczko, a Custer veterinarian who heads up the Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation. "I don't understand the motive for that."
GF&P regional supervisor Mike Kintigh said the recommendation for the larger female limit was made after careful consideration. He said the GF&P still considers the limit "conservative."
"We have cautiously approached the lion hunting season from the very first," Kintigh said. He said the increased limit is another step toward reaching a manageable lion population.
"Our very first proposal was made knowing full well it was well under the reproduction cap of the population," he said. "The second year, we came in and edged it up a little bit. We wanted to see what the impacts were.
"We felt we could take another step forward without having a dramatic impact on the population," he said.
Kintigh said four population estimates were taken to determine the current lion population in the Black Hills - which the GF&P is now estimating at 200 to 228 lions.
That estimate has narrowed from the previous GF&P estimate of 180 to 225. Kintigh said, as each season passes, the GF&P is able to better estimate the lion population.
"We're more confident that we're narrowing it down," he said.
Kintigh said the estimate is based on the number of lions the GF&P believed necessary to destroy to manage the population to its current level instead of having it increase.
"We'd like to maintain the population - not let it grow anymore," he said. "And to this point, all information indicates that it still has the potential to grow."
Kintigh said part of the GF&P formula when determining the harvest limit is to figure out how many lions are coming into the population each year. Those numbers are estimated at 62 to 66 per year.
"So it stands to reason, if you want to hold your population steady and not let it grow in size, you need to remove at least what is coming into the population each year," he said.
Sixteen mountain lions were killed in last year's season, at which point the female quota was met.
Seneczko is not convinced the GF&P was careful enough in coming to its conclusion about the season.
She said the GF&P is more concerned about bringing population numbers down than solving issues with human/lion conflict.
"I think it's a very aggressive move for them to double that female sub-quota," she said. "And I'm disappointed because the management program seems to be more geared toward taking lion numbers down, but they don't work every hard on habitat issues or massive education efforts to decrease conflict."
Seneczko said she doesn't know when GF&P officials will be able to decide that they have brought the population down to the proper number.
"How will they know when they have reached their endpoint?" she said. "How much do you want to reduce the population? How did you figure out what that number should be and how do you know when you get there?"
Kintigh maintains that the GF&P learns more each season and will eventually be able to develop a solid conclusion as to what the proper limit is.
He said the GF&P uses care each year in determining harvest limits.
"We didn't want to jump ahead so fast that we caused a dramatic decline in the lion population and then have to stop the lion season for a couple years," he said. "We want to approach this slowly and methodically, monitoring the population the whole time to see what impacts our hunting does have on it."
But Seneczko is worried that the hunting seasons could eventually wipe out mountain lions.
"If we overswing on this lion population, don't expect them to recover in the next 30 years like they did in the last 30 years, because of the habitat issues and the human encroachment issues of development," she said. "I think we need to go at this a little more conservatively."
Kintigh said the GF&P is trying to keep the number of lions in the Black Hills at a reasonable "social carrying capacity," or number of lions that the public will tolerate - considering sightings and lion encounters.
He said the GF&P believes the number of lions is above that capacity.
Another proposed change from last year's season includes the consolidation of the Black Hills Unit and the Prairie Unit into one statewide unit with licenses - priced at $15 - available to any South Dakota resident.
Last year, landowners in the Prairie Unit were allowed to shoot lions on their own property, and any licensed hunter in the Black Hills Unit was also allowed to hunt the big cats.
The recommended change would allow hunters statewide to participate in the season.
The proposed season would be from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, which is identical to the dates of last year's season.
Contact Ryan Woodard at 394-8412 or firstname.lastname@example.org