Though mountain lions once roamed the hills and forests across South Dakota, persecution at the hands of humans has driven them locally extinct in the majority of the state. They still live in the Black Hills, but suffer from high mortality in other parts of the state.
Although mountain lions may be physically capable of living in an area, human activities and attitudes could keep them from reestablishing a population there.
Fragmentation, sport hunting practices, and intolerant communities can wipe out mountain lions from any area.
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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.
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.
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 2010 Mountain Lion Management Plan, the Department now estimates that 251 mountain lions (138 adults and 113 kittens) reside in the Black Hills region of the state. 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.
As of June 2010, MLF's best estimate of South Dakota's mountain lion population would place it closer to the number range espoused by the Department back in 2003 with a total--both adult as well as kittens--not exceeding 149 lions.