Eight months after increasing their population estimate for mountain lions in the Black Hills, state Game, Fish & Parks Department biologists are doing the same for elk.
And critics aren't happy about this one, either.
A recently completed helicopter survey of South Dakota's portion of the Black Hills produced an estimate of slightly more than 6,000 elk, up from an estimate of 4,000 a year ago.
The survey, which some department critics are already attacking, involved weeks of aerial work by contract helicopter crews and GF&P biologists. It offered a more comprehensive look and better count than previous surveys, GF&P regional wildlife manager John Kanta of Rapid City said.
That's why the estimate went up, he said.
"It's pretty obvious that we were probably underestimating the population," Kanta said. "It's like the lion population estimate. We have newer, better techniques that produced better information."
Some people aren't so sure. They include John Wrede of Rapid City, a retired GF&P conservation officer and regional wildlife manager. Wrede has been critical of the way GF&P has managed mountain lions, elk and other big game in recent years.
Among other criticisms, Wrede has argued that GF&P issued too many licenses for past elk seasons and overhunted the population in many years. He said the resulting decline in the population, which some critics refer to as a crash, was primarily GF&P's fault.
Wrede is now challenging the most recent GF&P survey model as likely to be error caused by counting some elk more than once leading to inaccurate estimates.
"Do I trust these numbers as factually accurate? Absolutely not," Wrede said. "As far as I'm concerned, this is more of a political statement than it is a good population projection."
GF&P staffers came under fire last August for increasing a previous lion population estimate from about 200 to 300. Staffers said additional research and results of data from recent lion seasons prompted the change.
GF&P biologist Lauren Dahl of Rapid City, who did her graduate research on helicopter surveys of elk, said the model for the elk survey was designed to minimize errors such as multiple counts. It was a comprehensive survey modified for the Black Hills and aimed at accuracy, she said.
"We divided each elk management unit into several smaller subunits and began surveying in the northern part of the Hills due to ideal snow conditions," Dahl said. "From there we worked our way south until we surveyed the entire Black Hills."
Dahl said the effort involved two helicopters, 20 staff members and 173 hours of flight time. Flights took place off and on, depending on weather and other factors, from about the middle of February to the middle of March.
There were large herds of elk in some areas, such as Unit 2 of the western Black Hills, where the estimate was more than 3,800. And there were depleted areas, such as units in the eastern and southeastern parts of the Hills, where few elk were counted.
Dahl also warned that even the large groups of elk can disperse and move to other areas between the survey and the fall hunting season.
"This was a winter survey," she said. "Obviously elk move, and they won't be exactly in these locations or distributed this way in the fall."
Wrede fears the GF&P Commission, a citizen's board appointed by the governor to set hunting and fishing regulations and oversee GF&P wildlife-management decisions, will respond to the higher elk estimate by selling more hunting permits when an increase isn't justified.
GF&P has been widely criticized by hunters in the Black Hills and elsewhere in recent years for noticeable declines in elk and deer populations. That drop came after a period of high elk and deer numbers, however, and the elk herds prompted angry complaints over crop and fencing damage.
The elk herd reached a peak in 2004, with a population estimate of about 6,600, using the old estimate process. It is likely that the new data will be used by GF&P to raise that and other historic estimates.
"One of the things we will do with this information is try to back calculate what our elk populations most likely were back then, which would be higher," Kanta said.
GF&P responded to landowner complains in 2003 and 2004 by issuing more elk permits, and willing hunters knocked down the population. The hunting impact was magnified in debatable degrees by a mountain lion population that had emerged as a new limiting factor on big game in the Black Hills.
The GF&P Commission then responded to the decline, which is not rare in the up-and-down world of wildlife management, by reducing elk and deer licenses to rebuild the population.
Kanta said the new count on elk will not lead to a knee-jerk increase in elk licenses. It will, however, give GF&P biologists better information on the elk herd in the Black Hills. The herd has been a point of dispute between GF&P and some hunters who think mountain lions have decimated the elk herd.
And the higher elk population is certain to be a talking point at the GF&P Commission meeting Thursday and Friday in Winner. The commission is scheduled to set the 2013 elk seasons.
"When we tell them how many elk we're counting, I can't imagine some of the commissioners won't ask, 'Can't we offer some more tags in some units?'" Kanta said.
Whatever the commission decides, Kanta said the more complete survey was useful in showing that some areas of the Hills are nearly devoid of elk while there are still good numbers elsewhere, especially the Jasper Burn region west and north of Custer.
Dahl said new population estimate includes more than 5,000 elk outside of Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, which each have about 500 elk. The overall total with the parks is slightly more than 6,000.
Two recent helicopter drives, using the same company that helped with the elk survey, pushed almost 400 elk out of Wind Cave, where officials wanted fewer, and into Custer State Park, where officials wanted more.
Fences and gates that were lowered for the drive have been raised again to discourage the Wind Cave elk from returning.