With a 6-2 vote, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (SDGF&P) Commission voted last Friday to raise the limit for the 2012 mountain lion hunting season to 70 total lions or 50 females, whichever comes first. The quotas are the highest since South Dakota resumed mountain lion hunting in 2005, and the excessively high percentage of allowable female mortalities could orphan numerous kittens and seriously disrupt the natural behavior patterns of the Black Hills lion population.
Despite the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department's best efforts to anticipate the Commission's wishes with a proposed quota increase from 50 lions to 60, this is the third year in a row that the Commission has upped the Department's recommendations based on what some refer to as overwhelming public testimony. While "overwhelming" might be a little exaggerated when describing a pro-hunting bias of 28 out of 45 respondents, exceptional consideration was given to the opinion of former SDGF&P Commissioner Tim Kessler.
According to Mr. Kessler, SDGF&P's big-game biologists "work hard and are smart, but there seems to be something wrong with their data." His conclusion that the Department's lion population model is under-evaluating how many lions currently reside in South Dakota's Black Hills region fly in the face of what many of the lion researchers (including MLF) that question SDGF&P's numbers believe. SDGF&P's 2010 Lion Population model estimated there were 223 lions in the Black Hills--a decrease of 10 percent from the previous year. And though much of their raw data indicates the population is likely lower than 200, even with a 223 estimate, lion biologists do not advise allowing hunters to kill even 30 lions this season.*
One of the lone voices of reason at the Commission hearing was Sharon Seneczko, President of the Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation. "The commission needs to slow down and see more data from biologists before raising the kill once again," said Ms. Seneczko. "At this point, it really goes against good science to increase it every year. Rather than letting politics dictate this, I think we need to let the science show us what needs to happen. Mountain lions are important in the eco-system and yet we have to have a balance. The population has already been shown to be in decline base on the science."
Referring to the artificially-created elk population crisis created by the Commission six years ago in an effort to assist landowners, Ms. Seneczko echoed the opinion voiced by SDGF&P researchers when she disagreed with speakers who cited a SDGF&P study on mortality of elk calves and declared a need to protect the state's elk herd from lions. The study's preliminary report found mountain lions responsible for the deaths of 14 elk calves. "It is way too early in the game," she said. "This is raw data. This is not the result of a study yet."
South Dakota's 2012 lion hunting season is scheduled to run from January 1st through the end of March but could end earlier if either quota is reached.
* To maintain a healthy and ecologically-effective population of mountain lions in a region, human-caused mortality should not exceed 14% of the adult lion population.