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Legislative panel approves mountain lion season

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) 8-07
A legislative committee has approved the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission’s plan to let South Dakota hunters shoot more mountain lions this year.

The Legislature’s Rules Review Committee narrowly rejected a proposal that would have blocked the new limits from taking effect. The panel then approved the new limits, which wildlife officials said are aimed at maintaining a healthy population of mountain lions in the Black Hills.

The new limits let hunters kill up to 35 cougars, but no more than 15 females could be shot. That means the season will end when either 35 mountain lions or 15 females are killed.

Last year’s season ended when the eighth female was killed. A total of 16 mountain lions were taken.

The increased limit is based on research and is intended to keep the Black Hills mountain lion population at its current level, said George Vandel, GF&P assistant wildlife director.

The Black Hills mountain lion population is still growing, Vandel said. “We feel they can easily handle this kind of harvest,” he said.

Based on research by South Dakota State University graduate students, Vandel said wildlife officials believe the Black Hills has 200-225 mountain lions. More than 60 young lions are added to the population each year, and last year 46 adults were confirmed killed from all causes, which include car accidents, the hunting season and the removal of problem lions.

Some undocumented deaths occur, and some cougars leave the Black Hills in search of new territory, biologists have said.

Nancy Hilding of Black Hawk, president of the Prairie Hills Audubon Society, urged lawmakers to suspend the rules allowing the higher limits because she believes Game, Fish and Parks officials have not done enough research on mountain lions outside the Black Hills.

In previous years, the season had separate licenses for the prairie that allowed farmers and ranchers to get licenses to shoot cougars on their own land. The season this year will let hunters with licenses hunt either in the Black Hills or prairie.

Hilding said the Oglala Sioux Tribe wanted the area around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to be off limits, but the Game, Fish and Parks Commission allowed hunting there. Other areas, such as northwestern South Dakota, might develop lion populations unless hunters kill too many females, she said.

Instead of making licenses good throughout the state, officials should divide South Dakota into more units so the population could be managed in each area, Hilding said.

The higher limit could result in more young lions being orphaned before their mothers have taught them how to avoid conflicts with people, Hilding said. Some then could run into problems with people, she said.

“A sport hunt doesn’t necessarily relieve the conflict with humans,” she said.

State and tribal biologists consulted on the issue, but the Oglala and Rosebud tribes made no formal requests to exclude the areas from the mountain lion hunt, Vandel said.

All mountain lions shot by sport hunters so far have been in the Black Hills, and wildlife officials know of no established population outside that region, he said.

Rep. Bill Thompson, D-Sioux Falls, sought to suspend the higher limit, which would have meant that last year’s season and limits would have been used again this year. Thompson said he thinks wildlife officials should have to explain their research in greater detail.

But Thompson’s suggestion failed 2-3, and the panel then approved the rule setting the higher limit.