Tuesday, December 30, 2008

License sales for S.D. cougar hunt down sharply

Lion hunters down 65 percent from 2007

By Mark Watson
Black Hills Pioneer

SPEARFISH - Only 1,430 hunters bought licenses for the upcoming mountain lion season.

That is only 35 percent of the licenses sold for the 2007 season and nearly half from the inaugural 2005 lion season.

That sharp decline is due largely to the fact that the new season, which starts Thursday, runs apart from other hunting season. In the past the Lion season has run concurrently woth other seasons.

In May, when the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks commissioners proposed the state forgo a 2007 season and instead move it to the beginning of the year, John Kanta, regional wildlife manager with the GF&P thought that the number of hunters would drop sharply.

“I have a guess and that would be 1,000 (hunters) …; but we don't have any way to tease that data out,” Kanta said at the May commission meeting.

Discussion at the GF&P has officials debating whether or not the lion quota will be filled.

“We have a lot of different opinions here at the game and fish,” Kanta said. “I know some people are quite certain we will fill it, and others are a bit skeptical.”

But he said people felt the same way in 2005 for the first season.

“I always point out that the first season we had, myself as an example, I said 'we wouldn't reach that harvest limit the first year. Low and behold 15 days later the season was closed,” he said. “My personal opinion is that we may struggle this year with the deep snow and we are not running this season concurrent with another season like the deer season. It is off on its own now, which is a considerable reduction in licenses. So we potentially could struggle to get the harvest limit this year.”

Another factor that will limit the hunting is more limited access.

Many of the roads that hunters used during the earlier seasons are closed to allow snowmobiling or for winter game range.

“That certainly will pose a challenge for some of these hunters,” Kanta said. “Now whether they are willing to go behind closed gates or blocked roads and travel on foot, that is to be determined. But certainly in the Northern Hills and over in the more remote part of the north central Hills access will be limited. We're not sure how that will affect the harvest at this point.”

The change in the start date is to help prevent kittens from being orphaned.

“We know through research we substantially decrease the chances of orphaning kittens starting in January,” Kanta said.

Hunters in the 2007 season killed the mothers of three litters, orphaning seven kittens.

Through tracking systems and biological information taken from the cats during the mandatory check-in at the Rapid City office, the GF&P knew which harvested lions had litters. Those kittens were located, captured and sent to South Dakota State University where they were later transferred to zoos.

The Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation supports the change.

“We are in favor of this change for a couple reasons,” said Dr. Sharon Seneczko, president and founder of the local foundation. “One is that it takes it out of sync with the deer and elk season. So now there would be hunters out there hunting specifically for lion who hopefully will be more educated about what they are hunting. They are not incidentally shooting them if they see them, so the opportunity to orphan less would be there.

“The other is, we know from their research, that the peak birth of the kittens …#045; is in August. So if we push the season back, a greater number of kittens that could be orphaned would be older. Better to be left at 6 months rather than 3 months.”

The new season will run until March 31 or until the quota of 35 total lions or 15 female lions are killed.

In 2007, 19 cats were killed from Nov. 1-23. The distribution was split evenly between the Northern, Central and Southern Hills. One lion was killed in Harding County, a sub-adult male. Another lion, a female, was killed just outside the Black Hills boundary, which is Interstate 90.

The new season will also allow landowners outside the Black Hills to hunt year-round on their land.

“During the regular season, those licenses that a landowner might hold are good anywhere in the state …#045; after the season closes, after the harvest limit is met or March 31 comes. If that landowner hasn't harvested a lion that calendar year, that tag is good on their own land for the rest of the year,” Kanta said.

He cautioned hunters to be aware of the quota.

“It is their responsibility to keep themselves posted on where we're at for the season,” he said. “If a hunter harvests a lion after the season has been closed they will be looking at a citation. That's one important thing that they need to do.”

In 2007 three males were killed and 16 females were taken. The 16th, one over the 15 female lion quota, was shot at approximately the same time that the season-ending 15th female lion was being checked in with the GF&P, still making it a legal kill.

Lions traveling with another may not be shot.

Kanta said the department also increased the estimated number of lions in the Hills. The new estimate, at “250, plus or minus 30” is up slightly from prior numbers.

“We're not saying that the population has increased that much, but what we are saying is that we have better data to better estimate the population. This is a refined estimate,” he said. “We do still think that the population is slightly increasing.”

That increasing population has some sub adult males moving out of the Black Hills.

Kanta said a couple are on the Wyoming and Montana border and one is heading east of the Hills in the Cheyenne River drainage.

http://www.bhpioneer.com/articles/2008/12/29/breaking_news/doc495908a53c8da884825824.txt

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