The end of December and beginning of the new year marks a tradition in the Black Hills, the opening of mountain lion hunting season.
The season begins Dec. 26 in the Black Hills fire protection district and the usual harvest limits are in place. The season lasts until March 31 unless there are either 60 lions harvested or 40 females. The season in the prairie units continues all year long.
This year's season comes off back-to-back seasons where fewer than 35 lions were harvested, with 31 taken in 2017-18 and 30 in 2016-17.
South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks wildlife biologist Steve Griffin said there was a uptick in the population estimate in 2018 from the last few seasons. He said harvest numbers could be a reason why, but instead he said there is a high degree of variability when it comes to estimation mountain lion populations.
He said in the last three to four years the population has stayed stable between 275-300. The Jan. 1 2018 estimate indicates there are around 500 lions in the Black Hills.
"Truthfully we don’t believe we have that many lions. If you have not enough samples returned in the harvest than the population would be much higher," he said. "It’s a one-year substantial uptick but we need to not take that too seriously until we get another year or two of data."
The population is determined by DNA sampling done before the season, as well as hunter harvest of marked animals. Griffin said there is a wide range of variability for the population estimate, and GF&P doesn't believe there are really 500 lions in the Black Hills.
"That’s what we get with a small sample size. It’s very difficult to get a very exact number on mountain lion populations no matter where you’re at, some states don’t do an estimation because it’s hard to do," he said. "We rely on multiple years of data, we’re not going to get too bent of shape because of one year of population increase."
He said one thing the numbers do show is the population is doing very well. With a low number of lions harvested in the last two years and plentiful food sources with stable deer and elk populations, there will be opportunities for hunters to harvest a lion in the 2018-19 season.
"We believe the lion population is very healthy and stable. As far as we can tell the population is holding stable the last four or five years," Griffin said. "If we get good snow conditions out hunters should have a very good season in South Dakota this year."
Snowfall continues to be the most important factor in a successful hunt, and Griffin said the mere fact that snowfall occurs doesn't translate into a successful hunt.
"It’s when the snow comes and when the snow melts, how old the snow is. There’s a whole bunch of factors," he said. "We have a lot of folks who won’t go hunting until we have snow. In the past we’ve hunted without snow and folks have been successful, folks just chose the easier method and wiser method because you know you have a track there.
"Snow conditions are a factor because if you have three feet of snow it’s too deep for getting around in. if you have an inch of snow and it melts off by 10 a.m. that doesn’t help much either."
GF&P has also gone paperless with its mountain lion license applications. Those who wish to purchase a mountain lion license must fill out the application online, but Griffin said there are people available to help those who need it with filling out the application.