Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Cougar kitten killed - officials say it was "honest mistake"

GF&P sends message: Don't shoot spotted lions
By Kevin Woster, Journal staff - Monday, January 05, 2009

The hunter who shot a 46-pound, faintly spotted lion kitten Friday near Spearfish is guilty of an honest mistake that broke the law but did not merit a criminal penalty, a state Game, Fish & Parks Department officer said Monday.

GF&P regional game manager John Kanta said the hunter got a warning ticket for shooting the cat, which was estimated to be about 6 months old. It's against the law to shoot spotted lions, but an investigation showed that the hunter -- whom Kanta declined to name -- could not see the spots when he shot the cat from about 150 yards away.

"It was an honest mistake. But the rules are that you can't shoot a spotted lion," Kanta said. "We felt that it merited a warning, just to make him (the hunter) think twice next time. And it kind of sends a message."

The kitten kill and the separate killing of an adult female lion that orphaned two older kittens are the latest examples of the challenge faced by GF&P officials as they try to reduce the number of such kills, which are perceived negatively by the public.

It's against the law to shoot a spotted lion or a lion in the company of another lion. And this year, GF&P delayed the start of the lion season until January to separate it from the deer and elk seasons. The idea was to focus attention on the lions and eliminate some casual lion hunters who might be more likely to shoot a kitten or adult with kittens.

Yet all four lions killed in the season that began Jan. 1 have been females, including the kitten and a 6-year-old adult with two dependent kittens. That's more proof that GF&P has more work to do in educating lion hunters, said Dr. Sharon Seneczko, a Custer veterinarian who founded the Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation. She wants South Dakota to impose a mandatory education course for lion hunters similar to one in Colorado.

"I can understand that with excitement and inexperience mistakes can be made. But these are cases in point where more education is needed," she said.

At 46 pounds, the 6-month-old kitten weighed about half as much as a typical adult female lion and a third of a large male lion. But judging size at a distance can be tricky for those without much experience with lions, Kanta said.

And the spots, which begin to fade at about six months, were very light. The GF&P officer who investigated the incident told Kanta that he could not see the spots when he viewed the lion carcass from 15 yards away.

Kanta declined to name any of the hunters who killed lions this season, saying hunters identified in past seasons suffered public criticism and even personal harassment.

GF&P has in the past rescued lion kittens orphaned when their mothers were shot. But there won't be a search for these kittens, which had been previously fitted with radio collars and are known to be nine or 10 months old and probably capable of surviving.

"At nine to ten months, I think they'll do just fine," Kanta said.

That could be true, but it's far from certain, Seneczko said. At nine or 10 months, kittens have a much better chance of surviving than at six months or less, she. But the young cats left on their own sooner than normal also have a greater chance of hunting the wrong prey -- such as pets and domestic animals, she said. Kittens typically stay with their mother until they are 12 to 18 months old, Seneczko said.

"The older they get, the better the chances that they will survive," she said of the recently orphaned kittens. "But I'm also concerned that they could end up getting in trouble."

Kanta said research indicates that lion kittens move off to live on their own when they are 10 months to 18 months old.

Seneczko supports the later lion season but wishes GF&P would reduce the female sub-quota, which is 15 this season. The season runs through March 31, but will close sooner if a total of 35 lions or 15 female lions is reached.

The other two lions killed so far in the season also were females, one about 10 years old and the other 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 years old. The cats were killed south of Custer, west of Spearfish, near Johnson Siding and in the Spring Creek basin between Highway 16 and Sheridan Lake Road.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com



Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org

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