Thursday, October 15, 2009

Researcher: Black Hills' dominant cougars mostly immigrants

By Steve Miller, Journal staff - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The dominant male mountain lions in the Black Hills are virtually all outsiders that moved here from elsewhere, according to a South Dakota State University researcher.

Brian Jensen, a graduate research assistant at SDSU, said the dominant males are about 3-4 years old when they arrive.

"But we don't know for sure where they're coming from," Jensen told a meeting of the Dakotas Chapter of the Society of American Foresters Wednesday in Lead.

Jensen said virtually all of the young male lions born in the Black Hills leave, most eventually heading northwest to the Bear Lodge Mountains just over the border in Wyoming.

Genetic studies confirm that the large dominant males are from outside the Black Hills area, said John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department.

Kanta said there are roughly 20 dominant males in the Black Hills. Occasionally one dies or another older dominant male comes in from elsewhere and kills it, Kanta said.

"We don't know how many or where they're from exactly," he said. The most likely places are the Bighorn Mountains or the Snowy Range in Wyoming, although Kanta noted that there are lion populations in western Nebraska and western North Dakota. "It's possible we're getting interchange with those populations as well," he said.

Kanta said males born in the Black Hills have not yet begun to supplant the older dominant males from elsewhere, but he said the annual hunting season on lions might eventually help the young males.

"The thought is if we harvest enough animals, especially adult males, that will open up pockets and that some of these young males will stay," Kanta said. "We haven't documented that yet, although I don't think our harvest rates are high enough to open up those holes. Right now, we're just maybe keeping this population stable."

In any case, Kanta said, the immigration of mature males into the Black Hills is a good thing.

"We're a semi-isolated population and one of our concerns is that we have the potential risk of inbreeding," he said. "We've got new blood coming in. We've got a population that's healthy. It's good that it's happening."

Kanta said the newer satellite tracking collars are providing better information on mountain lion movement.

He said nine lions have the satellite collars and another 60 have the older tracking collars.

The tracking data shows that most of the young lions that leave the area eventually travel north to the Bear Lodge Mountains north of Sundance, Wyo., and some go farther north into North Dakota or Montana. Occasionally one makes a foray out onto the prairie to the east, but typically they come back to the Hills and then go northwest, the researchers said.

Kanta speculated that the lions go northwest because the forest habitat with its supply of deer and elk lies in that direction.

Jensen has recently finished a third research project conducted by SDSU and GF&P.

Jensen, who has studied mountain lions elsewhere in the United States and in South America, said there are several myths about mountain lions.

One myth, Jensen told the group, is that mountain lion populations are fragile.

"We tried our darnedest in the first 50 years of the 1900s to kill every mountain lion in the western United States," Jensen said. "We couldn't do it."

He said mountain lion populations, like individual lions, are highly resilient.

"They're killing them as fast as they can in South America, yet I can go down there in two weeks and catch five mountain lions."

Kanta said some people have the misconception that GF&P planted lions in western South Dakota.

"We haven't. They came back on their own."

He said a more aggressive hunting season could knock the population back, but it's not likely to wipe out the lions.

The forestry conference concludes today at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8415 or


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