As one of the states most recently recolonized by mountain lions, South Dakota has a small lion population. And yet the state’s lion hunting season is open year-round until the quota is met. South Dakota Game Fish and Parks estimates the mountain lion population in the Black Hills to be 277 lions. The current hunting quota in the state is set at 60 mountain lions (or 40 female lions) in a hunting season.
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Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today’s Leopardus, Lynx, Puma,Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.
What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the saber-toothed lion.
During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleontologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited South Dakota, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.
Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840’s, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.
Mountain lions are native to South Dakota. They live primarily in the Black Hills, ideal habitat for lions, but they may occasionally travel through other parts of the state as they attempt to disperse and find territory.
Early people who lived in what is now South Dakota crossed the Bering land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska at least 17,000 years ago and were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They hunted large prehistoric mammals that lived in the region, including mammoths, sloths and camels.
Historic Painting From South Dakota
The impact of early cultures on mountain lions was probably minor. Mountain lions were rarely hunted for meat. They were more often hunted in order to prove hunting prowess and to gain hunting strength as a warrior. Mountain lion skins were used for warm clothing and teeth, claws and paws were used for ceremonial purposes and to invoke strength for the hunt.
Native American tribes who have lived in South Dakota include the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Oglala Sioux, Arapaho and Mandan. The Cheyenne called the mountain lion ‘Nanose ‘hame’ and the Lakota Sioux knew the mountain lion as ‘Igmuwatogla.’
Black Elk was a well-known shaman of the Oglala Sioux who lived from 1863-1950 near Manderson, SD. Black Elk told much of the Oglala Sioux nation history to author John G. Neihardt, who wrote the famous book, Black Elk Speaks. Black Elk spoke of how respect for animals is a major part of Sioux culture and ‘two-legs’ and four-legs,’ including mountain lions, are seen as relatives.
The local tribes were hunters and crop-growers and became adept at trading with the fur traders when the first American fur trading post in South Dakota was established in 1817, Fort Pierre. At first, the Native Americans supplied the furs – from bison and beaver to wolves and mountain lions – and were able to trade for European commodities such as pots, pans and guns. As the fur traders learned where the wildlife was and how to trap and snare, they began to supply their own furs and were no longer as dependent on the Native Americans for local knowledge or for furs. The fur trade died out as wildlife began to disappear from the landscape, from over-trapping and from the spreading human settlement that drove the animals from their homelands in search of more remote and safer habitat.
There was a time when buffalo numbered between an estimated 65 to 70 million at their peak. Deb. R. Keim, a pioneer writer, observed, “I have seen herd after herd stretching over a distance of eighty miles, all tending in the same direction.” During that time other wildlife was thriving as well, including bear, bighorn sheep, wolves and mountain lions.
Settlers taking advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 were lured to South Dakota with promises of abundant farmland and found a vast prairie that was harsh and unforgiving. Wood was scarce so settlers built homes from prairie sod that had earth roofs, dirt floors and prairie sod walls. While building up homesteads, many settlers had to find other work, such as hunting or mining, as most arrived with no money in hopes of a better life. As people attempted to build up their farms and ranches, mountain lions and buffalo could not compete with the disappearing range land and wasteful game hunting.
As the railroads came through the prairies, buffalo hunters, including Buffalo Bill Cody supplied meat for the railroad crews. The hunters took only the humps, tongues and hindquarters, leaving an estimated 3 million pounds of buffalo meat on the prairies to rot.
From 1865 to 1900, homesteaders and sportsmen came to South Dakota and depleted what had seemed to be an unimaginable abundance of wildlife, from white-tailed deer to mountain lions. In the 1880’s, President Theodore Roosevelt and his friends participated in hunting expeditions for deer, bear and mountain lions in the rugged landscape of the Black Hills. It was this kind of unregulated trophy hunting that led to the complete extirpation of mountain lions by 1906.
State bounties continued until 1966 despite the fact that no one was bringing in any lions and after that the slow return of mountain lions over the next 30 years earned them ‘big game’ listing in 2003 and the first mountain lion hunting season opened in 2005.
The mountain lion’s ability to adapt to a wide variety of habitats, their stealthy and secretive nature, their dispersal patterns that call for travel over long distances, and their tendency to being an adaptable, ‘generalist’ hunter are likely what have allowed the re-establishment of mountain lions in the Black Hills.
The fur trade thrived in South Dakota, with one of the main trading posts on the Northern Plains being Fort Pierre. This post was run by the American Fur Company and trade was mainly in buffalo robes that the Lakota brought in to exchange for European goods. Robe production and trade reached an average of 100,000 bison robes annually by 1850. The robes that brought the most money were from bison killed in the winter months because their fur was thicker and plusher for warmth against the harsh winters there.
From 1889 to 1966, a bounty was placed on mountain lions by the South Dakota legislature. Despite an assumed abundance of the species, mountain lions were effectively extirpated from the state by 1906 with only two reported lion deaths (1931 & 1959) occurring over the next sixty years. Concurrent bounty programs and unregulated hunting practices in surrounding states suppressed the entire region’s mountain lion population and prevented recolonization of the species in South Dakota until the early 1970s.
Early settlers in South Dakota set about eliminating mountain lions from the state by killing them whenever and however they could. As in so many of the eastern Plains states, whites were fearful for their own safety and the safety of their livestock, and they did not want mountain lions competing for the native game such as deer and elk. As such, lions were killed by whatever means possible, including baiting, shooting, trapping and snaring. Their populations declined through the early 1900’s until extirpation in 1906.
Mountain lions were classified as a State Threatened Species from 1978 until 2003, when they were re-classified as ‘big game.’ The first experimental hunting season took place in 2005, justified by a number of so-called reasons including: to provide data for the state’s ‘mortality-based’ research and to provide a proactive rather than reactive strategy for dealing with ‘problem’ lions, (despite the fact that South Dakota had no problem lions) so the state could reduce the potential for lions receiving ‘bad publicity.’
Since their reclassification as a Big Game Animal in 2003, the only protection mountain lions in South Dakota have comes from the regulated hunting statutes, and those ‘protections’ are limited to only when and how many will be killed in any given year.
The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks listed the mountain lion as a state threatened species in 1978. More recently, in 2003, mountain lions were removed from the threatened list and classified as a big game animal but maintained some protection with a year-round closed season.
The state is divided into two management regions: the Black Hills in west-central South Dakota bordering Wyoming, and the Prairie Region that covers the remainder of the state referred to as the Prairie Region. Most of the mountain lions in the state reside in the Black Hills region. Though it is an important movement corridor, biologist have never found any individuals with established home ranges within the prairie region.
Starting in 2005, SD Department of Game, Fish, and Parks allowed mountain lions to be hunted. They started with an “experimental season” the first season and, with the exception of 2008, have allowed hunting ever since. Between 2005 and 2012, there were a total of 236 mountain lions harvested, 143 females and 93 males. Starting in 2013, it became legal to use hounds to hunt mountain lions on public land within the Black Hills, and legal to use hounds on private land in the Prairie region in 2015. Landowners are allowed to kill mountain lions any time of year outside of the Black Hills, and any cats killed will not count towards quota limits. In fact, mountain lions killed for depredations or perceived human safety threats by South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks or private landowners, as well as road kill, non-target trapping deaths, or mountain lions taken on tribal lands are not currently counted towards harvest objective quotas.
A Small Population with a High Hunting Quota
Mountain lions in South Dakota face some of the highest per capita hunting quotas of any population of mountain lions in the country. In some years, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks set the quota to greater than 40 percent of the already struggling population. Many mountain lion researchers agree that the rate for sustainable mountain lion harvest falls somewhere between 11 and 15 percent. Wildlife managers in South Dakota have access to research conducted in other states, so the logical conclusion here is that SD Department of Game, Fish, and Parks must be setting such high harvest rates with the intention of reducing the state’s mountain lion population.
Population Dynamics within South Dakota
As of 2021, South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks estimated the mountain lion population at 277 individuals. If you’d like to help mountain lions in South Dakota, support low harvest quotas and habitat preservation.
The state of South Dakota encompasses 75,896 square miles of land. Of this, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks (SDGF&P) considers only the Black Hills region of the state (5,220 square miles), or less than seven percent of the state’s land area, as viable mountain lion habitat. This distinction is purely artificial and based solely on the Department’s determination to restrict their management oversight of the South Dakota’s mountain lion population to a small corner of the state.
The National GAP Analysis Programs listing of suitable habitat, and prey species probability virtually guarantees that mountain lions could exist anywhere within the state.
Regional Characteristics of the Black Hills
Isolated by the surrounding grasslands of the Northern Great Plains, the Black Hills are part of the eastern most extension of the Rocky Mountains, and are located in west-central South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming.
The Black Hills are dome-shaped, sloping more steeply to the east than to the west with a high elevation of 7,241 feet above mean sea level. Forest cover in the Black Hills is predominantly ponderosa pine with codominants of white spruce and quaking aspen at higher elevations.
Large ungulate prey species available to mountain lions include: white-tailed deer, mule deer elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. In addition, porcupine and voles are commonly consumed by mountain lions in the Black Hills region.
South Dakota Mountain Lion Population Estimates
It is believed that the last mountain lion was extirpated in South Dakota in 1906. Over the next sixty-plus years, a few transient mountain lions originating in Wyoming would wander into the state, but this must have been a fairly rare occurrence because despite a bounty placed on every mountain lion killed in South Dakota there are no reports of a lion being killed until 1931, with the next not occurring until 1959.
In 1997, based on unverified anecdotal information, SDGF&P estimated that somewhere between 40 to 50 mountain lions resided in the Black Hills with an additional 15-25 on the western South Dakota prairie. Six years later the Department claimed that the results of a five-year research project indicated a population estimate of 127-149 lions (an almost 300 percent increase) within the Black Hills ecosystem alone.
In SDGF&P’s 2017 Mountain Lion Status Report, the Department now estimated that, prior to the 2016/17 season, 300 mountain lions resided in the Black Hills. Of these, approximately 230 were adults or sub-adults. While MLF has no direct knowledge regarding how many mountain lions there really are, we have difficulty accepting this “official” count, especially since it is being used to justify a drastic increase in the upcoming mountain lion hunting quotas. MLF’s review of the management plan found incorrect numbers, flawed mathematical equations, a series of bad scientific practices and assumptions, and a complete disregard of the basic biological and behavioral qualities of the species.
Generally, treatment of wildlife in the State of South Dakota is governed by the South Dakota Codified Laws — the collection of all current laws passed by the state legislature. Since our summary below may not be completely up to date, you should be sure to review the most current law for the State of South Dakota.
These statutes are searchable. Be sure to use the name “mountain lion” to accomplish your searches.
The South Dakota Legislature is a part-time, bicameral state legislature. The lower chamber — the House of Representatives — is made up of 70 members who serve 2-year terms. The Republican Party has controlled the South Dakota House of Representatives since at least 1992. The upper chamber — the Senate — consists of 35 members who also serve 2-year terms. The Republican Party has controlled the South Dakota Senate since 1995. Members of both chambers are limited to four terms. If you do not know who your state legislators are, the state maintains this website: Who Are My Legislators to help you find your legislators. If you already know who your legislators are, you can contact them using the House of Representatives Roster and the Senate Roster.
The South Dakota Constitution requires the state legislature to convene regular sessions at noon on the second Tuesday of January each year. The state constitution does not limit the duration of regular sessions, but the legislature generally adjourns in late March. The governor may call special sessions of either chamber or the legislature as a whole. The legislature may also call itself into special sessions upon the written request of two-thirds of the members of each house. There is no limit on the length of special sessions, but the legislature may use the session to conduct business on the subject for which it was convened.
At the September 2021 meeting, the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission voted to adopt the recommended changes to the mountain lion hunt for the 2021 – 2023 seasons. They also voted to adopt change rules to allow the use of dogs to hunt mountain lion to include all property owned by the Department of Game, Fish and Parks and also the land commonly known as Grasslands managed by the Forest Service.
The approved recommendations are as follows:
December 26, 2021 – April 30, 2022
December 26, 2022 – April 30, 2023
Residents: Unlimited licenses
Harvest Limit: Black Hills Fire Protection District: 60 mountain lions or 40 female mountain lions (includes Custer State Park)
We would like to thank everyone who took the time to submit comments to the SDGFP Commission. We will continue to fight to protect mountain lions in South Dakota and across America!
ACTION REQUIRED 2/15/2022:
HB 1296, if passed by the South Dakota Legislature, would amend § 41-6-29.2 to state: “Any person, licensed or unlicensed, may kill a mountain lion if the mountain lion is outside of the Black Hills Forest Fire Protection District.”
In addition to the Black Hills Fire Protection District harvest limit of 60 mountain lions or 40 female mountain lions, this bill will allow for the unlimited killing of any mountain lion found outside of the Black Hill Forest Fire Protection District.
HB 1296 was introduced in the South Dakota House of Representatives on February 1st, 2022 and referred to the House Agricultural and Natural Resources committee.
Can we count on you to reach out to the representatives of the South Dakota House Agricultural and Natural Resources committee, calling on them to oppose this bill? Together we have an opportunity to stop this bill, and prevent the unnecessary killing of mountain lions in South Dakota.
Mountain lions are essential parts of the ecosystems they are a part of. Mountain lion help herds stay healthier by removing sick members. They can also increase biodiversity through by limiting overgrazing, and providing food sources to many other species. The presence of large carnivores can even stabilize waterways, by reducing overgrazing that can trigger excessive erosion. The Black Hills mountain lions are one of the eastern-most sources of dispersing mountain lions.
Public opinion surveys conducted by SDGFP, indicated a diverse range of perspectives regarding mountain lions and deer. In a survey regarding wildlife, 77% of respondents believed that as much wildlife should be conserved as possible in South Dakota. In a survey regarding mountain lion hunting, many respondents believed mountain lion populations shouldn’t decrease and advocated for coexistence, and others believed that mountain lions would help manage conflict with deer populations. Some respondents feared mountain lions conflict with humans and livestock, and wanted their population numbers to decrease. Studies have indicated that the lethal removal of mountain lions has minimal effect on reducing conflict in humans, and can even increase conflict. The most effective way to prevent conflict between people and mountain lions is through education and non-lethal deterrents. Allowing for any mountain lion to be killed outside of the Black Hills does not meet the safety concerns of the public in South Dakota, and works in direct conflict with the public’s value of wildlife in South Dakota.
Thank you for taking action to oppose this legislation to expand the killing of mountain lions in South Dakota.
South Dakota Cougar Files Sorted by Type
Bourassa, M. A., 2001, Bighorn sheep restoration in Badlands National Park, South Dakota: lessons for cooperation. Crossing Boundaries in Park Managment: Proceedings of the 11th Conference on Research and Resource Management in Parks and on Public Lands, 112–117.
Feckse, D. M., J. A. Jenks, and F. G. Lindzey. 2003. Characteristics of mountain lion mortalities in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Proceedings of the Sixth Mountain Lion Workshop 25-29.
Fecske, D. M., J. A. Jenks, F. G. Lindzey, & S. L. Griffin, 2001, Effect of roads on habitat use by cougars. Dorothy M. Fecske, Jonathan, 5–6.
Gigliotti, L. M., 2002, Mountain Lions in South Dakota Mountain Lions in South Dakota A Public Opinion Survey – 2002.
Jansen, B. D., and J. A. Jenks, 2012. Birth Timing for Mountain Lions (Puma concolor); Testing the Prey Availability Hypothesis. PLoS ONE 7.
Jansen, B. D., & J. A. Jenks, 2011, Estimating body mass of pumas (Puma concolor). Wildlife Research 38(2) 147-151
Jenks, J. A. 2018. Mountain Lions of the Black Hills: History and Ecology. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Long, E. S., R. A. Sweitzer, D. M. Fecske, J. A. Jenks, B. M. Pierce, & V. C. Bleich, 2003, Efficacy of photographic scent stations to detect mountain lions. Western North American Naturalist, 63
Thompson, D. J., J. A. Jenks, & D. M. Fecske, 2014, Prevalence of human-caused mortality in an unhunted cougar population and potential impacts to management. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 38
Thompson, D. J., & J. A. Jenks, 2010, Dispersal movements of subadult cougars from the Black Hills: the notions of range expansion and recolonization. Ecosphere, 1
Thompson, D. J., D. M. Fecske, J. A. Jenks, & A. R. Jarding, 2009, Food Habits of Recolonizing Cougars in the Dakotas: Prey Obtained from Prairie and Agricultural Habitats. The American Midland Naturalist,
Thompson, D. J., 2009, Population demographics of cougars in the Black Hills: survival, dispersal, mophometry, genetic structure, and associated interactions with density dependence
Thompson, D. J., & J. A. Jenks, 2005, Long-distance dispersal by a subadult male cougar from the Black Hills, South Dakota. Journal of Wildlife Management, 69