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Some outraged that mountain lion kittens were legally killed last week

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A national mountain lion protection organization is outraged that South Dakota hunters shot three young mountain lions last week — one three months old and weighing just 25 pounds — and had their kills deemed legal by the state.

"It's tragic that someone would interpret that animal as a trophy," said Penny Maldonado, managing director of the Cougar Fund, a Wyoming-based nonprofit that opposes mountain lion hunting. "It was an inappropriate harvest, as obviously those kittens were."

State Game, Fish & Parks Department officials confirmed Tuesday that three mountain lions were legally killed by hunters last week.

Regional Wildlife Manager John Kanta said no fines were issued to the hunters who on Feb. 12 killed a 4-month-old female that weighed 25 pounds and a 5-month-old female weighing 32 pounds. Another hunter who shot a 4-month-old male weighing 27 pounds on Feb. 15 also was not cited.

State law makes it a misdemeanor for licensed hunters to kill mountain lion kittens that still have spots, or those that travel in pairs or groups. But Kanta said when it comes to the hunting of mountain lions, officials must use their judgment to determine if the law was broken.

Kanta said that while the mountain lions killed last week were quite young, the spotted coat that indicates youth can disappear at various times. At three months old, he said, the spotting is typically pretty heavy, but the spots are usually gone by six months of age, he said. 

The average weight of the 40 mountain lions killed in the Black Hills so far this season is 89 pounds, with the largest a 5-year-old male weighing 153 pounds shot in Lawrence County on Feb. 15, state records show. Ages of harvested mountain lions are estimated; all three young mountain lions killed last week were taken in Lawrence County.

After those mountain lions were taken to a lab and examined under lights, Kanta said a very faint spotting was visible. 

Kanta said wildlife officers and biologists who review each mountain lion kill quiz hunters about the distance of the shot and the available lighting to determine if they should have known a mountain lion was too young.

"If they say 'I shot this at 20 yards and the sun was shining on it,' they'd be looking at a fine," he said.

Hunters may be new to the sport or get overly excited in the field and that sometimes makes animals look bigger at first or from a long distance, he said.

"Typically when hunters bring these in, they think that they are bigger," Kanta said.

Maldonado said her group has a good relationship with South Dakota game officials, even if they disagree on mountain lion hunting. But she said the killing of animals so young should show the state that more education and animal identification training is needed before hunters take the field, even if it is only data emailed to hunters after they buy a license.

"The responsibility that goes with hunting is to know what you're shooting," she said.

She also noted that mountain lions, also known as cougars or pumas, do not have a regular birthing cycle, making it likely that most females taken will either be pregnant or caring for young.

So far, a total of 40 mountain lions have been killed this season with 25 of them being female. The limit is 75 total or 50 females killed before the season closes on March 31.

Contact Jennifer Naylor Gesick at 394-8415 or jennifer.naylorgesick@rapidcityjournal.com.

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