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.]