Despite opposition, South Dakota commission frees up more land for aiding mountain lion hunts

Sep. 17—South Dakota hunters who use hounds to hunt mountain lions will have access to more land this year, thanks to a petition that was recently approved.

While the rule change will give mountain lion hunters and their hounds much more access to public land, including GF&P-owned land and grasslands managed by the forest service, a number of South Dakotans are opposed to the changes for reasons ranging from risks of disrupting the state's ecosystem and wildlife to "animal cruelty." Despite the opposition the rule change sparked, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission approved adopting the proposed changes at its September meeting.

The petition to expand land for hounds to help hunt the species was submitted by Brad Tisdale, a member of the South Dakota Houndsmen Association, who says the use of dogs helps keep mountain lions away from ranchers' valuable cattle.

"I am very opposed to a pointless mountain lion season. If left alone the lions would help manage the excessive deer population. Humans need to feed their egos some other way, maybe helping fellow humans or photographing wildlife, instead of shooting mountain lions," Katie Gilmore, of Harrisburg wrote in her comment she submitted to GF&P. "Shooting animals for food serves a purpose; trophy hunting does not."

With the new rules in place that effect the prairie region mountain lion season, which entails the entire state except for a portion of the Black Hills region known as the Black Hills Fire Protection area where the species predominantly inhabits and thrives in the state, hunters and their hounds may pursue and culminate their hunt on private and all public lands with permission from the landowner or lessee, "as long as it's not expressly prohibited by the managing entity." The pursuit of the mountain lion must still originate on private land, according to the rule change.

Among the comments submitted to the GF&P prior to the September commission meeting, a few pointed to the use of dogs to hunt mountain lions as "animal cruelty," considering the large wild cats have been known to kill dogs on occasion.

"It is bad enough we have a hunting season on Mountain Lions when there is no need for one, but to allow the use of hounds is truly despicable," Teresa Hicks, of Rapid City, wrote in her comment, opposing the petition. "This isn't hunting, it's cruel and unsportsmanlike."

Rhys Fulenwider, of Rapid City, addressed concerns that the state's mountain lion population — which is estimated to be around 300 — will dwindle to dangerous levels, if they continue to be hunted.

"Large predators have been proven to help keep our ecology in balance. With as few Mountain Lions as there are in South Dakota, how can we in good conscience hunt them?" Fulenwider wrote in the comments.

John Kanta, terrestrial section chief of the GF&P's Division of Wildlife, broke down the rule changes during the recent commission meeting, helping clear up confusion.

Before the rule change, mountain lion hunters who use hounds were able to pursue and culminate the wild cats on some public property owned by the Office of School and Public Lands or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as long as it originated from private land.

"The hound hunt still needs to originate on private property, but it can culminate on any public land essentially," Kanta said. "The current rule allows for hound hunting to originate on private property and then culminate on Office of School and Public Lands and BLM lands. Mr. Tisdale is asking for us to expand that to forest service properties and our property."

While the new rules allow the use of hound-led mountain lion hunts to culminate on public lands, Kanta noted there's still some exceptions. Among the exceptions in which the hunters and their dogs cannot culminate the hunt include tribal lands and Bureau of Land Management areas that prohibit rifle hunting and use of hounds.

"Those will still all be excluded," Kanta said during the meeting.

History of monitoring population to consider changes

The state's GF&P established its first mountain lion hunting season in 2005, roughly two years after the wild cats were removed from the state's threatened species list and classified as a big game animal. Since then, a number of changes have been made to the hunting seasons in an effort to maintain the population, such as a fluctuating cap on the number of females that can be harvested.

The prairie mountain lion hunting season is open year-round in South Dakota, while the Black Hills area seasons stretch from Dec. 26 to April 30, 2022. However, the Black Hills season comes to a halt if a total of 60 mountain lions are harvested before the end date, or 40 females are harvested.

While some South Dakotans opposed to the mountain lion hunting changes claim the population of the species has been dwindling in the state due to nearly 20 years of hunting, there's been a slight increase in the number of the wild cats harvested in recent years.

According to the GF&P's data, there were 21 mountain lions harvested in the Black Hills region during the 2018-2019 season. But the following year in 2019-2020, hunters harvested a total of 51, marking an increase of 30. After this year's season wrapped up in the spring, 48 were harvested.

Outside of the Black Hills region, there's also been an uptick in the number of mountain lions harvested over the past few years.

After the state's first full mountain lion hunting season began in 2005, less than 10 of the wild cats were harvested each year outside of the Black Hills area until the 2017-2018 season when 11 were harvested. Since then, there have been 10 or more mountain lions harvested outside of the Black Hills each year during the prairie season.

According to GF&P's data, there have also been 132 verified mountain lion sightings outside of the Black Hills from 2005 to 2018.