By Barbara Soderlin, Journal staff
South Dakota's fourth mountain lion hunting season ended Saturday when a hunter harvested a 78-pound female cat in Meade County.
The lion was the 15th female of the season, a harvest limit.
The season was called a success by Game, Fish & Parks Department officials.
"This season was a significant change from previous seasons," Wildlife Division Director Tony Leif said in a news release.
The season started in January, later than in previous winters, to reduce the number of mountain lion kittens orphaned when their mothers were killed by hunters.
In previous years, lion season overlapped with deer season, bringing more hunters into the field who weren't as targeted toward lions, at a time when the most young kittens are being raised.
"With having a standalone season for lions, we had fewer hunters out in the Black Hills, and they still harvested 26 lions," Leif said.
The season was not without controversy.
One hunter shot a 46-pound, faintly spotted kitten Jan. 2 near Spearfish. Officials called it an honest mistake that broke the law but did not merit a criminal penalty. The hunter got a warning ticket; it's against the law to shoot spotted lions, but an investigation showed that the hunter could not see the spots when he shot the cat from about 150 yards away. The cat was estimated to be between 5 and 7 months old.
Other young lions killed this season included a 5-month-old male Jan. 15 and a 6-month-old male Jan. 16, both in Lawrence County.
Also in the first week of January, a hunter killed an adult female lion, leaving two older kittens orphaned.
GF&P has in the past rescued lion kittens orphaned when their mothers were shot and sent them to zoos. But these kittens, known to be nine or 10 months old, were considered capable of surviving on their own.
The biggest lion shot this season was a 159-pound male, harvested Jan. 8 in Custer County by Brenden Hendrickson of Custer.
"The tracks were bigger than my hand," he said at the time.
Although the season in the Black Hills is closed, licensed landowners outside of the Black Hills Fire Protection District can still harvest a lion on their own land.
Even with all of the hunting, the Black Hills mountain lion population is healthy and thriving, GF&P regional wildlife manager John Kanta said recently during a seminar on mountain lions.
GF&P officials estimate approximately 250 mountain lions live in the Black Hills.
The population has come back from being "nearly eliminated" in the late 19th century, Kanta said, when "People just killed them on sight, willy-nilly."
In 1978, the animals were listed as a state threatened species, and they were delisted in 2003, to be classified as a big game animal.
A bill to allow the use of dogs in hunting lions was passed in January by the state Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, but the controversial measure failed 6-27 on Feb. 4 in front of the full Senate.
The GF&P uses dogs to track and tree lions for research, but South Dakota hunters are limited to tracking lions on foot or luring them with predator calls.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org