The following story by Lauren Donovan is reposted from Inforum.com
With six of seven mountain lions killed in just four days—abruptly filling the quota and closing the season—a false impression might be created that the population is robust.
But the number of lions in western North Dakota has been on the decline since 2011, and the State Game and Fish Department will talk to the public in February about reducing the quotas.
The season closed Monday when the last of seven allowed in the western late season was killed by hound-hunting groups that killed one lion each day of the weekend, Friday through Monday. The houndsmen, who live in the Grassy Butte area, had taken one earlier and accounted for five of the total. A father-son duo took the other two over the weekend, also hunting with hounds.
The hound hunters had a boon in the light snow that left lion-scented tracks, visible to the eye and detectable by the noses of specially trained dogs in the rough Badlands country around Grassy Butte, the sweet spot for the breeding lion population. The dogs are trained to tree or cave the lion so the hunter can take aim.
Chaston Lee, a Grassy Butte rancher who trains and runs hounds to track mountain lions, said he doesn't believe the population is going down, despite what Game and Fish research finds.
"Every time we went out, we found one or two tracks. We never had an easier season. It was just plumb easy," he said.
He and his hounds were involved in three kills over the weekend.
"All three went into a tree," he said, leaving shooters with about a 20-yard shot.
He promotes the sport on a Facebook page, ND Lion Hunts and Hounds. The final lion shoot was a wheelchair hunt for a friend from Keene, who was disabled in a car accident.
"It was pretty neat," Lee said.
Having trained dogs and living in "cat country" does provide a unique set of circumstances, he says.
"They have the home field advantage," says Stephanie Tucker, a biologist with the State Game and Fish Department who studies the lions after they are killed to gain biological and demographic information.
"They're extremely efficient. With lions, the driving factor in their survival rate is hunting, and we see with our research animals that most are taken by hound hunters," Tucker said. "It's not their fault; they're just really good at what they do. It's the department's responsibility to look at the numbers."
It is partly the success of hound hunting—but also the overall quota of 21 in the western breeding zone—that is causing the Game and Fish Department to rethink how it manages mountain lion hunting in North Dakota. The quota is portioned, with 14 lion kills in an early-start season when no dogs are allowed and seven lion kills in the late fall when dogs are allowed.
In the decade since lion hunting has been legal, the department has recorded 97 mountain lion kills in the western breeding Zone 1 and nine in Zone 2, which is everything east of Highway 8 where lions are moving through, not living. There are no limits for Zone 2. Fort Berthold has its own program and 12 lions have been killed there, for a statewide total of 118, according to department records.
Tucker says research starting in 2011 finds the lions have a 42 percent to 48 percent survival rate, but a rate higher than 70 percent is required to sustain the population. The research is based on the carcasses, which reveals age and pregnancy rate, along with the mortality rate of radio-collared research lions.
"We're exploring that our level of take is not sustainable. If we want a harvestable population, we need to back off and explain why," Tucker said.
The big harvest in just one weekend seems to contradict that trend and that will be part of the public discussion, she said.
"The hound hunters are so efficient it's causing a misunderstanding that the lion population is bigger than it is. There are not lions coming out of our ears; it's just not the case," said Tucker, adding that a return to a western Zone 1 quota of eight to 10 is a number that likely would sustain the population.
Tucker said it also may be time to spread out the opportunity.
"Maybe we need to look at a lottery and give out tags and then give them all season (until March 31) so there's not that mad rush," she said.
Her boss, Jeb Williams, chief of the department's wildlife division, said he'll hold three meetings around the state in February to talk about the mountain lion program.
Williams said he does hear that more people want the opportunity to kill a lion and that its value as a recreational sport is increasing.
"We want to make sure it's equitable," he said.
Right now, lion hunting is open to anyone with a fur bearer's permit, provided the quota hasn't been met.
Williams also suggested it could be time to introduce a lottery system, like it has all big game.
"We'll look at that—a lottery system—to make sure everybody has a fair chance," said Williams, explaining the department will wait until it gets public input before making any decisions.
"Right now, the lion numbers with our research are trending down. We've been fairly aggressive. It'll all be part of the discussion we'll have this winter," he said.
Lee says no hunter in his group has ever taken more than one lion and he'd like to keep the quota and see an additional training period, so houndsmen could work their dogs and track and tree lions outside of hunting them.
"It's not all about killing, it's the memories and the exercise. I don't like to see 'em die; I'm not cold-hearted. There's the thrill of the dogs and seeing the cats in a tree. They're so majestic; so cool," Lee said.