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GF&P: Cougars now kill as many Black Hills deer as hunters

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Lion in the winter
A mountain lion was caught on a camera near a deer carcass.

Mountain lions now equal human hunters as the leading cause of mortality on Black Hills deer.

State Game, Fish & Parks Department biologists estimate that mountain lions killed about 5,500 deer a year in the Black Hills. That's about the same number that hunters killed during the Black Hills deer season in 2009, a year when the hunter “harvest” on deer was down from previous years.

"It's absolutely true that lions are one of the main causes of deer mortality in the Black Hills," GF&P regional game specialist John Kanta of Rapid City said Tuesday.

That lion kill is a point of serious discussion now, as Kanta and other GF&P personnel travel the state in a series of public meetings on mountain lion management. The first of those meetings was in Spearfish Monday evening, and more than 60 people showed up to listen and comment.

Kanta gave a presentation that included updates on the estimated lion population in the Black Hills and its trends. He also discussed the kill on elk and deer, which some big-game hunters believe is a problem that has sharply reduced the herd numbers and hurt public hunting opportunities.

Kanta said that while it’s true that lions feed on both elk and deer, they target deer in particular. So the impact on deer is more pronounced. He estimated that each year Black Hills lions kill about 6,300 “large ungulates,” which include elk, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. But the vast majority of those large mammal kills, about 5,500, are deer, followed by elk and a lesser number of bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

GF&P estimates a Black Hills lion population at about 250, with about 110 of those cats being young enough to still depend on adult lions for food. GF&P estimates that 140 adult and sub-adult lions in the Black Hills each kill about 45 large mammals a year. Lions pick up additional deer that are killed be vehicles, Kanta said, averaging about one large mammal consumed a week by each adult and sub-adult lion.

The Black Hills deer kill by hunters has declined in recent years, from 7,800 in 2007 to 7,000 in 2008, to 5,500 in 2009 -- when the kill was believed to have been equaled by lions.

Many things affect the rise and fall of deer populations, including disease and environmental conditions. But hunters and lions are leading mortality factors. Some hunters don’t like the increased competition from lions, said Mike Kintigh, GF&P regional supervisor in Rapid City.

“Some of the sportsmen we heard from in Spearfish were pretty pointed about that -- that lions were taking away from their opportunity,” Kintigh said. “The general consensus seemed to be that they liked having lions in the hills, but think we have too many.”

Part of the presentation was directed at rumors about the size of the lion population, Kintigh said. Some hunters are skeptical of GF&P’s estimate of 250 lions and have projected much larger numbers that Kintigh said can’t be substantiated.

“We tried to dispel some of those rumors, that there are 1,200 lions in the Black Hills, which is really just not physically possible given the available habitat,” he said. “We also talked about the impacts on deer and elk.”

Some big-game hunters have complained previously to GF&P that lions are killing too many elk, deer and other big-game species in the hills. Partly in response to those concerns, the GF&P Commission raised the overall limit to 40 during the 2010 season earlier this year. Commissioners hoped to trim the lion population.

Comments received during the public meetings could help the commission in setting the season limit for the 2011 season.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or


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