May 27, 2005

Mountain Lion Research Continues in South Dakota

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- A research project tracking mountain lions in the Black Hills has been extended for another year.

Wildlife managers want to know more about the reproductive rate and survival rate of kittens and where young lions go when they set out on their own, said John Kanta, a big-game biologist for the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks in Rapid City.

Since research began in 1999, 49 lions have been caught and fitted with radio transmitter collars - some more than once - to learn about their movements. The department is monitoring about two dozen lions now. Other collared cats have died, aren't transmitting a signal or have moved out of the area, said Kanta.

The department also expects to learn more if a hunting season with a 20-cat quota is approved as part of a management plan for lions. The GF&P estimates there are 140 mountain lions in the South Dakota portion of the Black Hills and 25 on the Wyoming side.

About 750 people attended 20 public meetings held statewide to discuss the management plan - specifically the hunting season. As expected, the largest turnout was in the Black Hills area: 180 people at Rapid City, 135 at Spearfish, 120 at Custer and 80 at Hot Springs.

"At most of the meetings we had some people who were against the season and houndsmen who felt we should open the season to the use of hounds," said Kanta, who presented the management plan at each meeting. "Generally, hunters were very interested, and we had landowners that had concerns about limiting it to the Black Hills - they would like to see it open statewide or on the West River prairie."

Some also said the 20-cat quota is too high, he said.

The GF&P's hunter quota is based on a management goal of maintaining 80 percent to 85 percent of the Black Hills' carrying capacity for lions. A first-year harvest of 20 animals would represent 14 percent of the estimated 140-cat population.

The department's draft proposal would set an October-through-December hunting season that would end on Dec. 31 or when the quota is met.

"The next stage will be to absorb what we heard at those meetings - in addition to the public comments we collected, the comments we've gotten by e-mail and letter - and digest them," said George Vandel, assistant director of wildlife in the GF&P.

The GF&P Commission will have the final say on whether to have a season, and in what form.

Department staff will update the commission at its meeting Thursday and Friday in Pierre. If the idea of having a season moves forward, it probably would be proposed to the commission in July, followed by a 30-day public comment period.

"On the other hand, we don't have our minds made up yet about a season," Vandel said.

A license would cost $10 for residents and $50 for nonresidents. Hunting would be restricted to the Black Hills Fire Management District. Custer State Park, federal parks and Mount Rushmore National Memorial would be off limits.

Hunters would have to report their kill to the GF&P, which would examine each lion and issue updates on the number taken. It would be a hunter's responsibility to know if the season had been closed because the quota was met.

The GF&P now tracks and kills "problem" lions that show up too often in populated areas or are attacking livestock or pets.

Researchers believe those lions and others sighted outside the Black Hills are being forced out of the hills because they're too young to fight off older cats and establish their own territory.

Unable to find suitable habitat, they keep traveling, often along river drainage, said Kanta.

That's likely the case of two Black Hills lions that headed in opposite directions. One lion collared in the Black Hills has been tracked through North Dakota and Minnesota into Canada. Another was hit and killed by a train in Oklahoma.

"That's the longest documented dispersal of a mountain lion to date," Kanta said of the Oklahoma lion, which traveled 660 miles in six months.