Environment | National

Native Sun News: Group battles mountain lion hunt in Black Hills

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Tom Huhnerkoch, President and CEO, Mountain Cats Trust

HILL CITY –– Wyoming’s June 12 deadline for public comments on a proposal to increase mountain lion hunting in the Black Hills area has goaded conservationists to call for action across state lines.

“Every year I think they can’t possibly increase it again, and they do,” Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation Chapter President Sharon Seneczko said at a June 7 open meeting in Hill City. “I’d consider it a victory if they would just hold the line for a year.”

South Dakota began allowing hunters to kill the previously protected mountain lion in 2005. Each year since then the kill quota has been raised, and official studies show that the population is decreasing, according to John Kanta, Region I wildlife manager for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks.

“We’ve dramatically increased mortality on this population with the hunter harvest,” Kanta said in a presentation at the meeting organized by the Mountain Lion Foundation. “Prior to opening the season, our survival rate was almost double what it is now on adult males.”

South Dakota has joined a dozen other states that permit hunting the mountain lion (cougar or Puma concolor): Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

“Now that all these states are hunting, at what point do you think we’re going to have a problem?” Mountain Cats Trust president and CEO Tom Huhnerkoch asked at the meeting. “At what point are our sources going to be hammered enough that we won’t have any?”

Huhnerkoch said most of the mountain lions that hunters kill in Wyoming and South Dakota are from the Black Hills area, which both states share. “That’s why I named it ‘Wy-Dak,’” he said, “because this is one population.”

Mountain lions once ranged throughout the contiguous 48 United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America, according to The Cougar Fund. Today, only 16 U.S. states officially recognize mountain lion populations. Florida lists them as endangered, and California protects them by law from sport hunting.

In 2009, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks declared the number of mountain lions to be anywhere from 225 to 275 – up from a study it funded in 2003 that estimated South Dakota and Wyoming mountain lions to number from 127 to 149. Kanta, a wildlife biologist, said the numbers today are hard to determine, but are easily less than 300.

Founded in 1999, the non-profit Mountain Cats Trust, based in Lead, predicts that even if kill quotas were not increasing annually from their 2008 level, the species would become extinct in the Black Hills by 2016.

Concerned about annihilation, the Rapid City Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America sent a letter to Wyoming’s Department of Game, Fish & Parks on June 9, opposing the idea of new areas designated for “unlimited” hunting of mountain lions.

“Those particular areas are adjacent to the South Dakota Black Hills, and those mountain lions don’t know where the line is,” chapter President Mark Boddicker told Native Sun News.

“A lot of this is something the South Dakota and Wyoming Game, Fish & Parks ought to be working on together – it is right on our border here,” he said.

On June 6, as his organization’s letter notes, it resolved “that the Rapid City Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America encourages and recommends that the

Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks work carefully and collaboratively together to manage the Black Hills Region’s cougar population for optimum viability throughout the species range in the Black Hills Region using biologically sound principles and the best available science that considers the best interests of the regional cougar resource and the outdoor, hunting and tourism interests.”

Wyoming’s Game, Fish & Parks Commission will consider the testimony on its staff’s recommendation to create a new parcel called Hunting Area 32 in the extreme northeastern corner of the state.

If the recommendation is approved, the hunting area will open on Sept.1 and close on March 31, regardless of how many mountain lions are killed. As in existing Hunting Areas 14, 24 and 27, an individual hunter can buy one cougar license and get a second at a reduced price.

“We just hope that all game management officials will not listen so much to the panic of homeowners and ranchers, and use a little more scientific-based data to determine how they’re going to manage these animals,” Boddicker said. “The same goes for elk and deer – it doesn’t have to be just predators,” he added.

According to the league’s letter, “There has been no factual or contemporary showing of extraordinary livestock damage, human peril or other conflicts with the public welfare in the Black Hills region of Wyoming or South Dakota resulting from the recently recovered cougar population.”

Both the Izaak Walton League and the Mountain Lion Foundation count hunters among their members. However, they agree with the Mountain Cats Trust statement that game commissioners have unduly favored deer hunters’ and ranchers’ demands for more mountain lion licenses.

“The Mountain Cats Trust seeks definitive answers about what is best for the Black Hills,” the letter also states. “We are not convinced that the environmental risks of losing a top predator outweigh the monetary gains that drive the mountain lion hunting season.”

Kanta said the pheasant hunting season accounts for the bulk of South Dakota’s income from the sport, and the state doesn’t rely on the mountain lion hunt for revenues.

“The big controversy right now that I’ve been dealing with the last few years is predators and prey,” said Kanta. “The extreme is that mountain lions are killing all our prey. Hunters want to kill the deer and elk. This is not uncommon across the West.” Some ranchers also want to drive the mountain lion population down, he noted.

Kanta’s wildlife station has not spelled out its recommendations for South Dakota commissioners yet this year. They will meet on Aug. 2 and 3 in Milbank to entertain proposed changes to mountain lion hunting rules.

He said 600 mountain lions have died in South Dakota since 1996, most of them in the Black Hills. So far, hunters have killed 74 this season, and a total of about 100 or so are expected to be killed, up from the total mortality numbers in the two previous years.

However, Kanta cautioned the mountain lion deaths caused by hunters are not the only indication of population pressure.

“What I would argue is that it’s not that simple. It’s not just one thing; it’s also disease, weather, vehicles, habitat, predation, forage competition and lots of things,” he said.

In partnership with South Dakota State University, his station has been studying mountain lions with radio collars since 1998.

“We’ve looked at annual home range, mortality, what are they dying of, population dynamics, travel corridors once they’ve left the Black Hills, genetic diversity, inbreeding, the effects of (hunting).”

Data from the years prior to the hunting season now being implemented show that adult males had about a 70-percent survival rate, Kanta said. “We last documented a 37-percent survival rate, so that shows that there’s a significant increase in mortality in the adult males and what we’re doing to this population,” he said.

His station also records mountain lion-related data from wild sheep, deer and elk population studies utilizing radio tracking collars. Most of the studies are peer-reviewed at the national level.

The trends, identified via a number of methods, are decreases in the Black Hills deer, elk and mountain lion populations, including a decline in the average age of adult female lions.

“My job is to make a recommendation based on what I know,” said Kanta. “The commission has to take into account everybody’s opinion and the emotion,” he added.

The commission consists of eight members, half from the eastern side of South Dakota and half from the western side. The governor appoints them, and they need not be biologists.

Boddicker said that mountain lions are being blamed for deer and elk decreases. However, hunting license increases for deer and elk could just as well be blamed along with other habitat factors.

“Over the years, South Dakota and Wyoming have gone haywire on game management. Sometimes the commissioners listen to what public opinion is telling them instead of what is actually out there,” he said.

Huhnerkoch complained that about 80 percent of written input has opposed increased mountain lion hunting, and commissioners nonetheless are more prone to respond to arguments based on sentiment.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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