Mountain lion hunters in South Dakota now outnumber rifle deer hunters in the state’s famed Black Hills. The big cat hunters purchased more licenses and spent more days afield than deer hunters in the same area for a fraction of the success rate, reports the Rapid City Journal. As interest in hunting the elusive predator explodes, many dispute the best way to balance both deer and mountain lion populations.
An extensive survey conducted by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks debriefed hunters on their 2013 mountain lion season. Last year South Dakota sold 4,351 licenses, nearly double the number of licenses issued during the state’s first season in 2005. As the Rapid City Journal points out, hunters purchased just 3,300 Black Hills rifle deer licenses.
One problem with this comparison is that the state sold an unlimited number of mountain lion licenses last season while Black Hills deer license sales remained capped. Every one of the 3,300 licenses were sold. Yet if you look at 2012 sales, the demand for Black Hills deer licenses fell just below supply. The state sold all but 13 of the 3,350 licenses that were offered.
Fewer than 10 years ago Black Hills deer harvests were booming. Hunters purchased nearly 9,000 licenses for the region and killed about 5,400 deer in 2006 and again in 2007. But deer hunter satisfaction and success rates began to drop off after the 2008 season. Many called for harvest reductions as others blamed mountain lion predation.
While factors affecting the area’s deer population are disputed, it’s true that mountain lions have flourished in South Dakota. The big cat has even expanded to other states from the Black Hills to allow expanded seasons in North Dakota and Wyoming. Nebraska also held its first season this year.
One respondent to the South Dakota survey wrote, “I feel that people who mountain lion hunt are just as passionate if not more passionate about hunting them then elk and deer hunters. I hope the Black Hills will have a mountain lion season for many decades to come even if I have to give up seeing more deer.”
Although deer hunters will undoubtedly take issue with such a statement, mountain lion hunters did spend more time afield than deer hunters. The big cat hunters hunted an average of seven days last year while Black Hills deer hunters averaged about four days afield each season.
But longer days might actually have to do with the disparate success rates for each species. Despite the extra hours, just 1.2 percent of license holders successfully harvested a big cat. Success rates for Black Hills deer hunters have averaged about 55 percent since 2000.
South Dakota’s mountain lion season ran for the full 96 days last year since hunters did not reach the overall maximum limits. A total of 61 big cats were harvested, 35 of which were female, and almost all of them were harvested in the Black Hills region. In 2010 Game, Fish and Parks estimated 223 mountain lions roamed the state.
Many of the hunters surveyed were passionate about the use of dogs for hunting mountain lions and made arguments on both sides. Dogs are currently banned from mountain lion hunts in the Black Hills, although special regulations permit them in Custer State Park. One survey respondent wrote, “The lion population in the hills will never be below a healthy level for the hills as long as hunting without dogs is the only hunting allowed.”
Despite the surge in enthusiasm from mountain lion hunters, most still hope to see the cat population decrease slightly during the next five years. More than 3,000 hunters completed the survey, and 85 percent expressed concern that the predators are killing too many game species. Overall the level of support for mountain lions in South Dakota has decreased since 2005 as concerns for declining game populations have increased.
South Dakota’s 2014 mountain lion season opened late last month and will continue through March 31 unless hunters limit out at 50 females or 75 mountain lions total. Hunters have harvested 15 of the big cats so far.
For more info:**
2013 Black Hills Mtn. Lion survey results
2010 Black Hills deer survey
2014 mtn. lion season so far