Lion season closes with reduced kill, ongoing debate over population level

2013-03-31T06:30:00Z 2013-04-01T14:36:03Z Lion season closes with reduced kill, ongoing debate over population levelKevin Woster Journal staff Rapid City Journal
March 31, 2013 6:30 am  • 

On paper, it looked like a mountain lion season to top all others.

The state Game, Fish & Parks Commission sold a record number of lion licenses. The commission increased the allowable kill to a record 100 lions. And snow for tracking lions fell more often than in 2012, when hunters killed a record 73 lions in two months.

But the 2013 Black Hills lion season will close today after a longer hunting season ended well short of the limit and below the kill in 2012. And the debate over what that says about the lion population and its management will pick up there when the season ends.

The lion kill sat at 60 Saturday afternoon. Lion advocates fear the reduced lion kill this season is a sign that the cats have been decimated by too much hunting pressure in recent years.

"It basically means the lion population has crashed," said New York-based cougar biologist and author John Laundre, who follows lion management in the Black Hills. "It has been over exploited the last two years."

Lion hunter Steve Bulle of Hayward, a small community in the Hills west of Hermosa, said there is no sign of a decrease in the lion population. He attributes the reduced kill to snow conditions that were unfavorable for tracking lions and some fatigue among lion hunters.

"It's terribly difficult for me to believe we've put much of a dent in the lion population," Bulle said. "All this says to me is that we need to kill 140 of them next year."

GF&P regional wildlife manger John Kanta is in between those two conflicting voices in his season analysis.

"It was definitely a little slower than we expected," Kanta said. "But we still got some good lion harvest out there. Our current direction is still to reduce the lion population. And this season went toward that goal."

The commission's population goal for Black Hills mountain lions is 150 to 175. The most recent population projection by GF&P was 240 before the start of this season. GF&P will use the harvest information after the season to determine how close that projection was.

The information will be part of a package when the GF&P staff presents a recommendation for the next lion season to the commission in August.

The lion population estimate has been a moving target often fired upon by GF&P critics, including Bulle. When the department last summer raised its lion population estimate from 200 to 300, Kanta said it was because of increased research and field data, including the kills from hunting seasons.

Bulle and others supported the increase, since they had been arguing for years that the GF&P estimate was low. But they remain suspicious about the numbers and question the assertion that the lion population is on the decline.

"Right now, I'm not going to say it's increasing. But I don't believe it's decreasing, either," Bulle said. "And I'd say there's a good chance it will increase again because of the reduced harvest this year."

Laundre has no doubt it is decreasing. And he, too, doubts the GF&P population estimate, but for different reasons. He suspects it was raised last year without a scientific basis simply to justify the record 100-lion kill quota.

"I think they inflated the numbers under the pressure from the commission to justify the 100 limit," Laundre said. "I'm convinced that the GF&P Commission's overt or covert mission is to decimate the lion population because of pressure from hunters and ranchers."

GF&P commissioners have denied such allegations, saying they want a sustainable lion population at a lower level. Kanta confirms that and also maintains that the staff upped the lion population estimate based on science, not politics.

Harvest data from the seasons and overall lion mortality from other causes are part of the population-estimate model. No one season should be taken as conclusive, but this season seems consistent with a declining population, he said.

"I'm confident it's declining. What I'm not confident in is how much we're decreasing each year," he said. "I don't know exactly how much it's being reduced each year."

It's hard to know, because young lions are being born as other lions are dying. And the season isn't the only lion mortality factor. Last year, along with the 73 lions killed in the 2012 Black Hills season, four more were killed by licensed hunters outside the Black Hills.

In addition, 32 other lion deaths were recorded for causes other than sport hunting, including GF&P removal of problem animals, vehicle strikes, lion fights and unknown causes.

There were also 13 recorded lion deaths last year because the 2013 lion season actually began on Dec. 26, 2012. 

Kanta points to the 32 non-hunting lion deaths in 2012, compared to 51 2010 and 44 in 2011, as another factor that seems to indicate a declining population.

This year, however, there have already been 14 recorded lion mortalities outside of sport hunting. That is twice the number that had been recorded last year at this time. So other mortalities are on pace to increase this year.

Whatever the trends or significance of nonhunting mortalities, Bulle said he and other "boots-on-the-ground" hunters see things differently.

"I've got pictures of 11 cats on four different trail cameras within 4 miles of my house," he said.

Bulle contends that more lions would have been killed this season if conditions had been better for tracking.

"To me, it's pretty evident that this season was all weather related," he said.

National Weather Service data actually shows more snowfall days and more days with snow cover at locations across the Black Hills from January through March this year than in 2012. Bulle argues that often the snows were not good for tracking or melted before hunters could use them.

He points to a 16-day period from Feb. 15 to March 1, 2012, a period of good snow cover when 32 lions were killed. This year during that period with limited snow, six lions were killed.

"If we'd had the same snow cover in that same period this year, we'd have been at 72 lions on March 1, compared to 73 last year," Bulle said.

The Black Hills lion season typically is set to run through March 31, unless the kill quota is reached sooner. The 2012 quota was 70, and hunters reached and exceeded it, with a flurry of cats, by March 1.

Since the quota of 100 wasn't reached this year, the season went through March for the first time. It also started earlier, on Dec. 26 rather than the typical Jan. 1, to give hunters a shot at lions over the holidays.

And the value of snow was clear in the first six days of this season, when 13 lions were killed.

Kanta notes that in 2012, almost 70 percent of the lion kills were related to tracking in snow. Yet there were times this year when the snow fell and the lions didn't, he said.

"The whole snow thing is important to hunting success," Kanta said. "I don't know how much it's worth talking about in relation to a lion population trend."

Bulle challenges the importance of the license sales, too. If sales did set a record, some hunters might not have gone out much because conditions were't right, he said. Others might have already bagged a lion in previous seasons and didn't hunt as hard in this one. And some might have bought a license because the GF&P Commission changed  rules to allow non-landowners with a lion permit to hunt them year round outside of the Black Hills, Bulle said.

Some also might have bought a license to apply for limited spots to hunt in Custer State Park, but then were not drawn, he said.

The GF&P Commission this year increased the number of lion hunters allowed in the park and also allowed some to use hounds. As of Saturday, six lions had been killed in the park, five of them through the use of hounds. 

"Overall, I think the hound hunts went great," Kanta said.

Some of the biggest male lions of the season were taken with hounds in the park, including a 138-pound male estimated at 8 to 9 years old.

Lion hunting won't end entirely with the Black Hills season. Hunters with permits who haven't killed a lion this season may continue to hunt outside the Black Hills Fire Protection District for the rest of the year.

And there is no end in sight for the debate over lion management.

[This story has been changed to reflect a correction. There have been 14 recorded lion mortalities this year outside of the hunting season.]

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(9) Comments

  1. wildcat
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    wildcat - April 01, 2013 8:44 pm
    Peace Pipe: If "conflict of interest" is your main concern, then why have you given John Laundre a free pass. Laundre resides in New York and is Vice President of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. Are you indicating that Laundre's statements do not smack of conflict of interest?

    By the way, for all practical purposes, Laundre seems to simply pluck information from thin air whenever it's convenient to do so in order to make a claim concerning South Dakota's mountain lion population. For example, in September 2010, Laundre was quoted as saying, "I suspect that there are only about 85 adult mountain lions" in the Black Hills (source: RCJ article, "Mountain lions called integral to the Black Hills"). Then in Oct. 2012, while referring to the SD Black Hills, Laundre apparently told a reporter that he thought the actual lion population was closer to150 animals, rather than 300 which was the estimate provided by SD GF&P (source, RCJ article: "GF&P Commission hears many voices on proposal to kill up to 100 lions"). Note that in Oct. 2012 Laundre was apparently suggesting that the lion population had in effect increased (perhaps close to 100%) from the level he described in Sept 2010, despite harvests of 49 and 73 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

    And now Laundre CLAIMS the population has "crashed" after a harvest of 61 cats, approximately 55 of which were independent cats (adults). But of course, once again, John Laundre provides no substantive information whatever to support his absurd claim.

    It seems that Steve Bulle at least has trailcam pictures of 11 mountain lions near his residence in the Black Hills, not to mention many hours of tracking and calling mountain lions while hunting. In my book that gives Bulle a minimum of 1100% more data, i.e., honest data, concerning the Black Hills population than John Laundre could ever muster.
  2. Peace Pipe
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    Peace Pipe - April 01, 2013 3:17 pm
    I guess that now I know who Steve Bulle is and his qualifications. I still question your conflict of interest.
  3. Steve B
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    Steve B - April 01, 2013 10:10 am
    So, Old Timer, would I be correct in assuming that you are "anti-hunting", and would advocate for the elimination of GF&P, or at least their Big Game Management functions?
    If so, 'nuff said.
  4. Steve B
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    Steve B - April 01, 2013 9:59 am
    Who is Peace Pipe and what is his qualification to express his opinion in this forum?
    Apparently he believes that because I hunt mountain lions, I do not have the same rights as he does to express his opinion... Sorry, but freedom of expression is one freedom that I am not willing to give up. My opinions are based on my observations from thousands of hours spent in the Black Hills in the past 14 years, along with many hundreds of hours of researching GF&P's lion studies and data, along with scientific research done in other Western states. That does not make me an expert, but I do try to become as informed as possible about a subject before forming my opinions.

    Let me make one more thing perfectly clear. I have never advocated for the elimination or extirpation of mountain lions from the Black Hills. I love having mountain lions in the Hills and the opportunity to hunt them. I just happen to believe that we have too many of them, and that at current population levels the feed bill is too high. Don't forget that last year GF&P raised their population estimate from 200 to 300 in one fell swoop. They also have set a population goal of 175 (+ or - 25). The harvest of 61 lions this season doesn't get us close, especially considering the recruitment that will occur between now and the season next year.
  5. Peace Pipe
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    Peace Pipe - April 01, 2013 8:36 am
    Who is Steve Bulle and what is his qualification? As a lion hunter he has a conflict on interest, to say the least. The GF&P Commission is a political board without any back round in animal management and they should be removed from making these types of decisions.
  6. wildcat
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    wildcat - March 31, 2013 10:23 pm
    -- "So far this year, GF&P has recorded five nonhunting lion deaths." --
    KW: So far this year, GF&P has recorded 14 non-hunting lion deaths, in addition to the cats harvested during the hunting season, correct?

    -- '"It basically means the lion population has crashed," said New York-based cougar biologist...John Laundre.' --
    One of the goals of the South Dakota Mountain Lion Management Plan (2010-2015) is "to reach a sustainable and socially acceptable mountain lion 175 +/- 25 individuals." During the past two hunting seasons, Wyoming and South Dakota have harvested more than 235 mountain lions within or near the Black Hills, yet South Dakota remains well above its prescribed population goal.

    At least since Sept. 2010, a contingent from New York has squawked concerning harvest levels set for mountain lions in South Dakota...and elsewhere. The mountain lion population within the Black Hills has not crashed; however, next season John Laundre may renew the same false and frivolous claim. Perhaps what John Laundre really wants is that which exists in California where an anti-hunting environment precludes any and all hunting of mountain lions.
  7. Old Timer
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    Old Timer - March 31, 2013 5:38 pm
    Sounds to me that South Dakota has it's own glory hound expect on lions in Mr. Bulle!!! The GF&p needs to let "Mother Nature" take care of the wildlife like it has well before humans came into the picture!! They seemed to handle themselves VERY WELL in the past!! You all seem to forget that "WE" moved into their territory, not them coming into ours!! You so called experts are just going to end up killing them all off, you look at all that you kill every year, plus the ones the police,GF&P and road kills, they the cats donot reproduce every year like some believe. So, what gives you the right to be judge and jury on what amount of wildlife, lions, elk, deer, etc.,etc. needs to be killed (not harvested). They will take care of themselves by reducing the numbers the way they did thousands of years before man thought he knew better!!!! Humans are their own worst enemies, look at the facts and you will see this is true!!!!
  8. purpletier53774
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    purpletier53774 - March 31, 2013 2:00 pm
    I grew up in the hills and now live in Rapid and the snow (or mud) has always seemed to make the animals prints stand out better.....easier for tracking for those that need some help with that for hunting purposes. In fact my husband and son go deer and turkey hunting every season and they actually prefer to go on those days the (or the next day) for that reason. My son took awesome pictures on his digital camera ( we got him for xmas) of lion prints up at Stockade Lake after a snow fall. Our winter really wasn't all that harsh on this side of the state either so that really can't be at fault either. Maybe GFP the ranchers and all really do want them out of here and maybe that has been the goal all along. Whats better Chronic Wasting Disease or Lions? I say the Predators! GFP, What happened to deer and elk having chronic wasting disease anyway because that hasn't really been a problem since we have had the lions? Just something to think about.
  9. Spiker
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    Spiker - March 31, 2013 9:51 am
    Don't you just love having self-imposed NY "experts" chiming in on situations they really know little about? I'll bet Mr. Laundry needs not be concerned about his children , grandchildren and/or pets safely playing in their yards. It has been suggested that the hunters this year, as a group, are much more novice than previous years-- veterans of the process having already accomplished their goal of hunting the cats. These novices were (1) from farther afield than the Hills, therefore less active and less often activly hunting. (2) Had they known there was going to be a significant snowfall on any given weekend , there would have been heavier pressure during that weekend.
    It is far too early to jump to conclusions about the season- but I trust the GFP, our farmers and ranchers and especially our law enforcement officers if and when they say there are too many cats.
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