Kevin Woster

Kevin Woster

The days leading up to the Black Hills mountain-lion season are much quieter than they used to be for John Kanta.

So are the nights.

“At one point, and this was the final straw for my wife, a gentleman called me at, I think, 11:30 at night,” Kanta says. “Obviously, I was in bed. When I answered he said ‘Is this Mr. Kanta?’ I said it was and he started yelling at me.”

And yelling, and yelling, as Kanta tried to suggest that the man call him the next morning at the state Game, Fish & Parks Department regional offices here in Rapid City.

“But he just went on and on yelling at me,” Kanta says. “And I set the phone in-between my wife and me, and she listened for a while and finally said: ‘OK, tomorrow you need to get a new phone number, and it will be unlisted.’ And I said ‘OK.’”

That was part of life for the soft-spoken regional wildlife manager during the early years of the mountain-lion season, which caused a major cat fight when it opened in 2005.

Some hated the idea of lion hunting and feared it would wipe out the cats. Others wanted more lions killed to protect elk and deer, and people. The angriest voices rose above the mass of people who seemed to support a limited lion season, weren’t worried either way or didn’t know what to think.

“We had those who said we have too small of a lion population and genetically we can’t hunt them because we’ll wipe them out, similar to the Florida panther,” Kanta says. “And then on the other side, we had folks saying the lions were going to wipe out the elk and deer.”

The debate raged for several years, and I got to write about it. I also got some angry phone calls and in-person harangues over my coverage from readers who considered me biased in one way or another.

But I didn’t get what GF&P got. And nobody got more of that than Kanta, sometimes in pretty threatening ways.

“I don’t want to call them death threats,” he says. “But I got some nasty letters, saying they would hold me personally accountable for whatever they thought was going to happen. So, yeah, it got pretty bad there for a while.”

That was especially true when the elk and deer populations in the hills crashed and some hunters blamed lions. It was a lot more complicated than cats, of course.

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Oh, they kill their share of elk, deer, bighorns and other wildlife. That’s how they make their living. But wildlife populations typically experience ups and downs tied to weather, available food and habitat and, yes, sport hunting, an important and imperfect management tool.

In increasing hunting pressure on elk and deer in response to landowner complaints over herd numbers, GF&P seemed to issue too many licenses and hit the herds too hard.

But license numbers were cut so the herds could rebuild, which they did. Meanwhile, hunting pressure on lions reduced cat numbers, also reducing their impact on wildlife. It also seems to have lowered the number of problem lions that end up killing livestock and pets or wandering around in town.

“Look at the elk, the deer, and the lions,” Kanta says. “Right now we’ve got pretty healthy populations of all of them.”

And that means pretty quiet days — and nights — heading into Tuesday’s opener of the Black Hills season.

Who would have figured that? Certainly not Kanta — at least, not before he got that unlisted number.

Kevin Woster has been a reporter in South Dakota for 40 years. He now writes a blog and does radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing kevinwoster@rushmore.com.

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