The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission met August 2-3, 2012 in Milbank to discuss the state's mountain lion management plan. Prior to the release of any formal recommendations from the agency's biologists, the Commission has proposed a quota of 100 lions, or 70 females, to be killed in the upcoming winter's sport hunting season in the Black Hills, up from 70 lions or 50 females in 2012. The proposal also would allow hunters the use of dogs in Custer State Park to track, tree and kill lions. A new provision would allow lions to be killed year-round by licensed hunters in the remainder of the state. Those kills outside the Black Hills would not count towards the year's limit.
Mountain lions were hunted to local extinction in South Dakota by 1906. It took one hundred years for dispersing lions to eventually re-establish a small breeding population in the Black Hills: a low mountain range on the western edge of South Dakota. This was the direct result of protection from indiscriminate hunting in the region that began in the 1970's.
Decades of habitat research suggests that, left alone, this island-like habitat might support a self-regulating population of about 230 mountain lions. However, to a handful of vocal ranchers and hunters, this possibility is unacceptable. Feeling the need to "control" the small population, South Dakota removed the lion from the state's threatened (protected) species list in 2003.
Just two years later the first "experimental" sport hunt began, and since then the number of lions killed has continued to rise with each hunting season. In the short time from 2005 to 2012, the management strategy has clearly shifted from offering a recreational hunt (a quota of 25 lions in 2005) to attempting to eliminate lions completely from the state (100 lions slated for death in 2013).
Sport hunting has exceeded sustainable levels. This, combined with other human-caused mortality (roadkill, poaching, depredation, etc.) is putting South Dakota's lions in serious jeopardy of extirpation. Again. Loss of the lion from this region may also halt the return of the mountain lions to the Midwest and East (see our latest feature article: Eastward Ho).
During recent hunting seasons, sport hunters unable to find adult lions have resorted to shooting kittens. Mountain Lion Foundation estimates that there are fewer than one hundred adult lions remaining in the entire Black Hills today: less than the quota, far less than the quota combined with kills for other reasons. Even if Black Hills lions are not exterminated altogether in the coming year, we do know that hunters will be aiming at more tiny spotted pelts if they want to reach the new quota.
SDGF&P is attempting to justify the inflated quota by saying that their new population model indicates there are actually more lions in the Black Hills than previously thought, and hence they need to authorize more to be killed to help shrink the population to a desirable level. The agency claims that their most recent population assumption of 300 lions is derived from radio-collar data, but this data is currently unavailable to the public. Ironically, the state's current management plan includes flawed calculations from previous radio-collar studies. In the plan they were unable to prove the existence of their stated population of 250 lions (corrected math showed their data only indicated between 112 and 142 lions). And the primary data was never made available to the public.* (see our feature article: Does 2 + 2 = 5 in South Dakota?).
* The Mountain Lion Foundation submitted a request to SDGF&P asking for the original research papers and data used to create South Dakota's 2010 Mountain Lion Management Plan. The agency responded saying they denied the request for two reasons: "(1) the Department does not hold the research data requested, and (2) the distribution of raw data used in research is not open to inspection and copying under SDCL 1-27-1.5(3)"
SDCL 1-27-1.5(3) prevents public inspection and copying of data which if released would infringe intellectual property rights, give advantage to business competitors, or serve no material public purpose.