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When the firing is finished for 2011 in the Black Hills, sport hunters will have killed about 3,000 deer.

Mountain lions will have killed 4,000 or more.

That worries sport hunters, who also fret about things like this:

In an ongoing study of elk calves in Custer State Park, almost 70 percent of the 30 calves fitted with radio collars this spring are already believed to have been killed by lions.

One study doesn't necessarily represent the lion kill on elk calves throughout the Black Hills, but it shows on a limited level the kind of lion carnage that some hunters fear is taking place on a much larger scale.

What's that mean for the future of big-hunting in the Black Hills? Hunters like Lee DeLange aren't quite sure.

"I'm a little pessimistic about what the coming years will be and whether my kids will be able to go hunting in the Black Hills, as I've been able to," said DeLange, a 40-year-old Rapid City native now living in the country near Nemo with his wife and three children. "I think we've got a problem with lions."

The state Game, Fish & Parks Commission agrees. That's why the eight-member citizens board that oversee the GF&P Department has been upping the allowed lion quota in a season that killed 13 lions when it first opened in 2005 and could kill up to 70 in 2012.

Hunters like DeLange think that's a wise move by the commission, which responded to a resounding succession of hunters calling for a higher lion quota during a recent meeting in Rapid City. The commission's goal is to trim a lion population that estimated at about 250 a couple of years ago down to 150 or 160 after next year's hunt.

DeLange likes the sound of that.

"I think they're headed in the right direction," he said. "If they're talking about cutting the lion population down to 150, that sounds about right to me."

But it sounds all wrong to John Wrede of Rapid City, a retired conservation officer and former game manager who worked for GF&P for 31 years. Wrede thinks GF&P created many of its own problems with dwindling elk and deer herds in recent years by shooting too many doe deer and cow elk.

The agency increased the issuance of "antlerless" deer tags to reduce a deer herd that had exploded in many areas. GF&P took a similar approach to cutting the expanded elk herd, by increasing the number of cow tags available to hunters.

Wrede thinks GF&P leaders and the commission bowed to pressure from politicians and a small number of landowners complaining about damage to crops and fences and feed supplies from deer and particularly elk.

It was a simplistic over-response to a complicated wildlife management problem, Wrede said. It additional pressure on deer and elk herds already stressed by year-round human disturbance and questionable forest management and grazing practices that have diminished the big-game habitat base, he said.

"The Black Hills essentially are the most heavily logged, heavily roaded piece of public land in the United States," Wrede said. "The animals simply don't have the kind of security they used to have. We're creating a lot of our own problems."

Blaming the lion is the easy way out, Wrede said. And he fears that lions will suffer the same kind of population overkill endured by deer and elk when "we shot the living daylights out of them."

"Increasing the lion permits isn't going to help speed up the recovery of elk and deer at all," Wrede said. "We're simply abusing one wildlife population to try to recover another."

Wrede isn't shy about making his argument to GF&P officials. They include regional wildlife manager John Kanta of Rapid City, whose job Wrede once held. Kanta understands Wrede's concerns, just as he sympathizes with DeLange's worries about the shrinking deer and elk herds and the effects of lions.

Both arguments have merit but don't tell the whole story, Kanta said. Nor is the decline in deer and elk numbers as catastrophic as some might believe, he said.

‘Are the numbers down? Absolutely. You can drive the highways and see that," Kanta said. "But it's not accurate or fair to say the elk are gone and there's no deer out there and everything stinks."

Kanta agrees with Wrede that wildlife management is complicated. And the GF&P commission and its technical staff have been trying to respond to landowner complaints, provide optimal hunting opportunities to the public and find a stable range for the elk and deer herds, he said.

The elk herd has dropped farther than managers desired in many areas, from an overall high of around 6,600 in 2004 to about 4,000 before the season last year.

It's likely to be lower this year. The deer herd has been dropping as well, a fact reflected in the overall harvest in the Black Hills for all types of hunting - regular rifle, muzzleloader, archery and youth seasons included. The total deer kill by sport hunters was 7,800 in 2007. That hunter kill dropped to 5,500 in 2009, a point at which Kanta figured lions and sport hunters were killing about the same number of deer in the hills.

That thought aggravated some hunters and enraged others, some of whom showed up at the GF&P Commission earlier this month when commissioners set the highest lion kill quota in the season's short history.

Kanta figured the lion kill for the year based on a formula of how many lions are in the hills and how many deer each would typically kill in a year. And he points out that because the lion population remained essentially the same, hunters were likely killing deer more than lions when the deer population was higher and more permits were issued, such as in 2007.

There' no doubt, though, that lions take their share.

"Lions were basically built to kill deer. That's what they evolved with," Kanta said. "They're most efficient at killing deer, so that's what they're going to target - deer or deer-sized animals."

Lions can kill adult elk but are more likely to kill elk calves. That's particularly true with the very young and vulnerable calves are in the first week after birth.

DeLange believes he has seen the impacts of lions on the elk herd that had lived around Nemo. He has seen eight lions since he and his family moved to the Nemo area in 2003. He has also watched an elk herd in that area virtually disappear.

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"You see more lions and you see fewer elk, and hardly see any calves, to me there's a pretty obvious connection," he said.

He also understands that hunters had an impact, and sometimes elk move out of a given area. But lions are still his biggest, long-term concern.

The elk were down so far in the Nemo area this year that DeLange put in for an elk license in another unit. And he managed to bag a nice elk bull hunting near O'Neill Pass. But he worries about the elk that seem to be missing near his home.

"I guess I saw about 40 elk in the five days I hunted," he said. "I used to see 40 elk going to work in the morning down Vanocker Canyon."

Mike Jarding has watched the same kind of decline in both elk and deer in the southern hills. He manages a ranch near Minnekahta Junction west of Hot Springs, and shares DeLange's worries about the future of Black Hills hunting.

"My biggest concern is these young hunters coming up," Jarding said. "If they go out a hunt for four days and don't see a deer or elk, it'll be hard to get them to try it again."

Like Delange, Jarding supports the higher lion quota, along with reduced hunting licenses for a time.

"How I see it is Game, Fish & Parks put out too many tags because they were trying to reduce the herd. And now the older elk are being killed off by hunters and we don't have the young ones coming up, because of lions," Jarding said. "If we don't do something, the hunters will harvest all the older elk and we'll be out."

Kanta said he is confident that elk won't disappear from the Black Hills. But rebuilding the herd might take some time, especially if it's done in a way that's more palatable to landowners and beneficial to hunters and elk long term, he said.

"We can get back to those number of 5,000 to 6,000 elk and that's my goal here in the Black Hills," Kanta said. "But I don't want to get back to that situation we had in 2003, with private landowners suffering damage from high elk density."

Kanta likes a management scheme that adds elk overall but focuses growth on areas of mostly public land where the big animals won't cause problems. Meanwhile, the GF&P Commission has cut way back on deer and elk permits and boosted the lion quota.

It's a combination Kanta believes will work, as the Black Hills region adjusts to a higher lion population that seems here to stay.

"Certainly, the increase in the lion population was a new effect, because that was a new mortality we hadn't dealt with to this degree in recent history," Kanta said. "But hunter harvest, particularly on elk, is still the major mortality."

And it will be again with deer, when that population rebuilds itself and lion numbers are reduced, he said.

Meanwhile, the big cats have the predatory edge in killing an animal they evolved to eat.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or

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